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States are looking to build quality-assurance models for nondegree credentials.

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The National Skills Coalition, a research and advocacy organization focused on workforce training, has issued a new report detailing best practices for states to assess the quality of nondegree credentials. The organization worked with almost a dozen states to help them develop assessment models for nondegree credential programs.

The report, released today, notes that there are thousands of nondegree credential options offered by hundreds of providers in and outside higher ed nationwide, ranging from certificates to badges to occupational licenses and apprenticeships. But determining the quality of programs has been a long-standing challenge for state education and workforce development agencies and public and private employers.

Ensuring these credentials provide economic and educational value is a high-stakes matter for students and workers who enroll in the programs.

Data from the 2016 Adult Training and Education Survey by the National Center for Education Statistics and analyzed by the National Skills Coalition found that a third of American adults between the ages of 25 and 64 had a nondegree credential. People of color who earned these credentials were less likely to also hold a degree than their white counterparts. Women of color also disproportionately make up nondegree credential holders. At least 60 percent of Black, Latina, Native American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander holders of these credentials are women.

“We have a duty or responsibility to make sure that the credentials people are earning are leading to a positive return on their investment, and that also employers are getting workers that have the skills and competencies that they need to fill their workforce demand,” said Lindsey Reichlin Cruse, an author of the report and postsecondary education senior fellow at the National Skills Coalition.

Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, said the issue of credential quality is also top of mind for federal policy makers as they consider allowing students to use Pell Grants, federal financial aid for low-income students, for programs shorter than 15 weeks. The U.S. Department of Education is also currently revamping its gainful-employment rule, which would require educational and training programs to show that their programs lead to increased wages for graduates. Programs that are unable to meet that requirement would risk losing federal financial aid funding.

Carnevale said federal and state lawmakers are increasingly interested in funding training programs that provide workers with credentials because “we are moving towards a world in which you’re going to have skill shortages.” Low-quality programs also don’t serve the “public interest,” he added.

“If you go apply for a job and you took this short-term training or whatever program from whoever, let’s say a community college, and they find out when you get on the job that you don’t know what the hell you’re doing, that’s a problem,” he said.

The National Skills Coalition worked with 11 states starting in 2020 to help them develop frameworks and processes for assessing whether credentials meet various quality standards. State teams working on the issue included representatives from various state agencies, governor’s offices, community colleges and K-12 school systems, among other stakeholders.

The coalition defines a quality nondegree credential in the report as one that leads to “substantial” job opportunities, teaches graduates “clearly defined competencies” that align with the needs of employers and that is stackable and recognized and accepted by various employers. The report also says credentials should be judged on employment and earnings outcomes data.

Reichlin Cruse said the organization and the report focused on states because state agencies often have access to statewide education and workforce data that help to track credential quality.

State lawmakers “also have an interest in whether or not their public dollars are going towards worthwhile credentials and worthwhile postsecondary experiences that actually achieve the goals that they’ve set for themselves as a state and for their state economies and for their employers,” Reichlin Cruse said.

Meanwhile, there’s a lack of comprehensive federal data on credentials that don’t receive federal financial aid. They also get limited federal oversight.

Shalin Jyotishi, senior program manager at the Burning Glass Institute, which conducts research on the future of work, said in an email that many states and employers have recently dropped degree requirements for jobs, “but far fewer have a plan in place to operationalize quality non-degree pathways to quality jobs.”

Learners and employers are interested in these credentials, “but many are still wary of their reliability—rightfully so,” said Jyotishi, who is also a part-time Future of Work Fellow at New America, a public policy think tank. He highlighted a report by Jobs for the Future, an organization focused on helping college and workforce leaders create equitable economic outcomes for students, which found that the majority of Gen Z survey participants and employers believed in the potential of nontraditional degree pathways but worried about whether they would lead to jobs.

Quality and subpar credential options alike have “ballooned” and created a “jungle gym of credentials” provided by higher ed institutions, companies and employers, he said.

“Now is the time for states to ensure that the non-degree credentials that are created are high-quality and lead to mobility, opportunity, and a pathway to good careers,” he said.

The states that worked with the National Skills Coalition vary in the rate of progress establishing these frameworks for credential quality, according to the report. Seven states adopted quality rubrics for specific policies and programs, while others are at various stages of adopting statewide frameworks. They also differed in terms of the state government agencies responsible for overseeing these efforts. Six states had state higher education agencies or commissions leading the framework development and one effort was led by a governor’s office of workforce innovation, while three had cross-agency collaborations and two had separate initiatives happening in both the education and workforce offices.

The report notes that states faced some common roadblocks: staff members without enough time to dedicate to creating credential quality rubrics, lack of support from key leaders and collaboration difficulties among different state agencies. The infrastructure for collecting necessary data also varied widely from state to state. States that provided financial aid for nondegree credential programs or had other support policies were more likely to track and report on graduate outcomes.

Mamie Voight, president and CEO of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, said in an email that the report makes clear that “investing in improved data collection, capacity, and reporting infrastructure is essential for answering critical questions about equitable access, affordability, completion, and earnings outcomes.”

“Institutions and employers need high-quality, complete, and disaggregated data to drive improvement and align postsecondary offerings with current workforce demands,” she wrote.

The report offers lessons learned from the states that worked with the coalition. It emphasizes that state lawmakers signaling the importance of instituting a quality rubric, or legislating that one be developed, can help these efforts get off the ground faster. The report also recommends creating policies, such as state financial aid programs, that require using quality standards for nondegree credentials. It also suggests using quality-assurance standards to advance racial and gender equity.

For example, the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development adopted a quality-assurance model that takes into account equity in employment and wage outcomes for historically underserved groups.

“The conversation is progressing for sure,” Reichlin Cruse said. “We’re not there yet. But these 11 states have certainly made important progress.”

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