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When Credential Engine launched an initiative to create a national credential database late last year, the head of the organization knew it would be an ambitious and tricky undertaking.

Compiling and confirming hundreds of thousands of credentials from education providers across the country was certain to be a time-consuming and organizationally demanding task, but Scott Cheney, executive director of the D.C.-based nonprofit, wanted to try.

He just wasn't sure exactly how big the newly created Credential Registry would be.

In April, a research study commissioned by Credential Engine counted at least 334,114 credentials in the U.S. That number included 213,913 degree programs and 66,997 certificate programs offered by Title IV-eligible postsecondary institutions, 23,454 high school diploma programs, 13,656 registered apprenticeships, 8,864 state-issued occupational licenses, 5,465 boot camp certificates, 23 MicroMasters and 24 Nanodegrees.

The total number of U.S. credentials is actually much higher. This first count did not include non-credit-bearing postsecondary certificates, awards by institutions that are not eligible for Title IV funding, unregistered apprenticeships or alternative credentials like digital badges.

Subsequent research by Credential Engine that isn't yet published suggests there are at least 500,000 credentials available in the U.S. and possibly up to 750,000. Cheney's plan is for the registry to include “all indicators of skills and abilities,” he is also “very open to recognizing the different kinds of credentials that exist.”

The problem with trying to track credentials is that new ones are being added all the time, said Cheney.

“We’re just starting to get a handle on the scale of the market in the country,” he said. “It means that the scope of the work that we’re trying to do is getting bigger.”

Work on the Credential Registry, which is supported by the Lumina Foundation and other funders, has been going well since December, said Cheney. But plans to include international credentials in the registry are on hold for now.

“We have so much work to do still in the U.S.,” he said.

The registry has so far published over 2,200 credentials, which can be searched using the registry’s Credential Finder app. Cheney explained that the small number of credentials published so far reflects an early focus of the project on putting partnerships in place to help populate the database, as well as the time taken to establish new systems and speed up publication. Cheney hopes to publish 50,000 credentials by the end of the year, and between 100,000 and 150,000 by the end of next year.

Focusing on sectors such as health or defense helps the registry create manageable workloads and establish relationships with federal and state agencies. The registry is working with the state of Indiana, for example, to publish all health care-related credentials from state providers as part of an initiative to improve state health-care systems. Credential Engine is also in talks with the Department of Defense to get the federal agency to publish its credentials to the registry, with the ambition of then adding defense-related credentials offered by the 2,700 or so institutions with whom the agency has education and training contracts.

So far, the registry has arrangements with state work-force, labor and education agencies in Indiana, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Ohio and Rhode Island. Credential Engine has been providing these agencies with some grant money to get the project started, but “that’s not a model we anticipate always being in place,” said Cheney.

The project doesn’t scrape, crawl or harvest any institution’s data. “This is a collaborative partnership,” said Cheney.

The registry is reaching out to universities through conferences, blog posts and webinars with membership groups like the American Council on Education (which is hosting two webinars on Credential Engine this month). Institutions that want to add their data to the registry only have to create an account on the website and “we’ll get them the right tools and the right information to publish in the methodology that they choose is best for them,” Cheney said.

Cheney envisions that the registry will be useful to “anyone involved in the labor market,” whether they are students, workers, employers, policy makers or educators. People looking to change careers or gain new skills can use the registry to find and compare credentials, and employers can use the database to “understand not just what a candidate is bringing to them, but where to go to find the best candidates that have the competencies they’re looking for.” The Credential Registry will update credentials as they evolve, but will also keep historic versions on file so that employers can see what candidates learned when they completed their training.

Cheney said he’s pleased that state policy makers have been thinking about how this information can improve their ability to support their education and training systems, as well as economic development efforts. The data can help states understand “what you need to get in order to have your economy grow and be vibrant,” he said.

Cheney wants searching for a credential to be “as easy as it is to search and book a hotel room or buy a car online.” The real potential of the registry lies in how the open application programming interface (API) might be used by other parties to create new tools such as a statewide credential apps to help high schoolers explore career options or a review site that might look like TripAdvisor, but for credentials.

Connecting wage and employment data to the registry is something that Cheney thinks would be extremely useful to work-force development. He is in talks with the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, among others, to start exploring this option. Graduation rates are also something Cheney could foresee being linked to the data, though it’s “not something we’ve crossed the bridge on yet.”

Jonathan Finkelstein, founder and CEO of digital credential platform Credly, said there is a growing awareness of the work the Credential Engine is doing among industry leaders and college presidents.

“They understand the need for more transparency,” he said.

One of the important developments of the registry is the creation of a standard set of definitions for credentials called the Credential Transparency Description Language. Credly helped to develop this language and was one of its earliest adopters. Finkelstein thinks the registry could help to "reframe the conversation" about credentials and foster "a culture of recognition and achievement."

Matthew Pittinsky, CEO of Parchment, another digital credential platform, agreed that the Credential Registry is performing a “valuable service” and that creating a common terminology “opens up all kinds of opportunities.” Pittinsky believes the registry could have a big impact on college admissions research, and he considers incorporating the registry data with Parchment’s own admissions data as “an important part of our road map.”

The major impact of the Credential Registry will be in aggregating, indexing and standardizing credential data, said Pittinsky. Apps like the Credential Finder “must have a minimum value to offer -- but can’t do everything for everyone,” Pittinsky said.

Sheryl Grant, director of research at the nonprofit Community Success Institute, whose mission is to improve educational outcomes for underserved communities, said she's interested to see what other people will do with the registry data, but she has doubts for now about how useful it will be for “normal people” who “don’t really know what a credential is.”

Damian Ewans, project director at Opportunity at Work, a nonprofit focused on expanding access to career opportunities, agrees that the registry alone would not be that useful to job seekers. “Being able to find and know basic information about credentials is a fine early step,” he said. “But it likely won’t provide much value without a lot of additional layers, interventions, communities and new ways of looking at credentials’ impact.”

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