The Changing Audience for Credentials: 3 Key Questions

Credential innovation is so important because colleges provide much of what employers are looking for, but they don’t assess, document and communicate those outcomes, argues Matthew Pittinsky.

March 1, 2017

Few topics in higher education are getting more attention than credential innovation: making credentials digital, introducing new credential types and communicating more information about learning outcomes.

Credential innovation moves transcripts, certificates and diplomas beyond accounting and verification records for transfer and graduate admissions, or mechanisms for validating completion of a university’s degree program. For many institutions, a clear driver of innovating the form and function of their credentials is a belief that today’s transcripts do not communicate what employers care about.

There are two ways to think about this issue. It’s possible that credentials don’t communicate what employers care about because colleges don’t actually provide what the labor market wants. And plenty of people say that. But I (very emphatically) believe that’s generally not true. In fact, credential innovation is so important because colleges do provide much of what employers are looking for. The problem instead is that they just don’t assess, document and communicate those outcomes. So the information is lost, and students are left to their own devices to effectively represent their collegiate experience. And the impact of colleges and universities is left implicit, not explicit.

If higher education institutions do equip students with much of what employers want, and credentials are the mechanism for communicating those outcomes per student to an employer, then the foundational question animating credential innovation projects should be: What do employers want to know? A vice provost of academic affairs recently asked me this question, and it’s stuck with me ever since.

In fact, I heard the same question, frequently, at a recent Lumina Foundation gathering where community colleges, universities and third-party vendors shared how they are experimenting with a comprehensive student record. It’s a national question for higher education as a whole, but even more so a geographically local and industry-specific question that every institution needs to consider distinctly. Let’s face it, there is no such thing as the unitary actor “employer” any more than there is such a thing as the unitary actor “higher education.”

Surprisingly, too many credential innovation projects lack grounding in clear answers to this simple question. Like the proverbial drunk looking for car keys where the light is brightest, they start with a clear conception of what the college or university can say beyond courses and credits, not a clear conception of what their employer market has asked to understand about their graduates. That makes sense insofar as colleges and universities (should) each have a distinct educational mission and program, and it is the outcome of that program or mission that credentials should communicate. But if the goal is better communication and alignment, leaving the question of employer interest unasked makes it much less likely that the underlying goal of credential innovation will be achieved.

In 2014, Hart Research Associates conducted an online survey among 400 employers on behalf of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. The majority of employers said that possessing both field-specific knowledge and a broad range of knowledge and skills is important for recent college graduates to achieve long-term career success. In fact, 80 percent of employers said it would be very or fairly useful to see an electronic portfolio that summarizes and demonstrates a candidate’s accomplishments in key skill and knowledge areas, including effective communication, knowledge in their field, applied skills, evidence-based reasoning and ethical decision making. It is important to note that, along with course work, those are the very types of capabilities that institutions help students build through activities like co-curricular leadership, study abroad and faculty research collaborations.

Today, community colleges and regional four-year schools often work closely with a particular employer or set of employers that define their local economy. The Kentucky Community and Technical College system, the North Carolina Community College system and many other institutions and systems align programs and assess outcomes in a way that’s highly aligned with what those employers are looking for.

What appears less common is a national dialogue between institutions and employers, particularly regarding white-collar jobs -- the kind of jobs where writing well, speaking well, thinking analytically and being comfortable with numbers are important skills to have. (Those are the types of skills that I describe as desired outcomes for my students as an assistant research professor of sociology at Arizona State University.)

Of course to ground credential innovation in an understanding of what employers want, institutions must begin the credential innovation journey by determining which employers matter to them and their students -- in particular those who actually consume their credentials today -- so they can ask how they use credential documents and what they think about them.

Digital credential platforms like Parchment, where I work, enable registrars to see where their credentials are going, which can then be the pathway for opening up this discussion. For example, we observe in Parchment’s data that Ernst & Young collects academic credentials, as does the Department of Homeland Security. Other national employers that receive transcripts from applicants via Parchment include Boeing, Deloitte, Hewlett-Packard, NASA, the U.S. Army, the U.S. State Department and Wells Fargo, to name a few.

Asking what employers want to know inevitably sparks a second question: Given what employers are looking for, does our educational environment develop that in students? While I think it does (and far more than we’re given credit for), the experiences are not necessarily tracked or assessed and can span multiple information systems. They may not have the rigor and integrity that the recording of course work involves, and by choosing to organize course work into a priori majors and minors, clusters of courses that reflect particular skills or ways of thinking can be lost. While program innovation is no doubt needed to meet employers’ needs, introducing a better and more formal assessment of what we’re already doing becomes low-hanging fruit we can harvest without redesigning programs or creating new ones to meet employers’ needs.

This brings me to a third and final question: How do we document and communicate this information? The answer is providing a credential in a certified and succinct way, in an operationally efficient way, and in a way that has reflective/scaffolding value to the learner so they can maximize their time in college to prepare themselves for the labor market.

For example, Elon University has provided a co-curricular, or experiential, credential for many years as part of its educational experience, which includes undergraduate research, global engagement, leadership, service and internship. Although the experiences were not documented originally with employers in mind (they reflect Elon’s distinctive educational philosophy), the university recently began surveying employers who received their new experiential transcript about what was useful and what was not. They found that 75 percent of employers agreed that the experiential transcript provided useful information for the hiring process, while 44 percent agreed that the experiential transcript increased the chances that an applicant would get an interview.

Communicating credential information effectively means supporting the development of data standards, as today’s national employers increasingly rely on applicant tracking systems with algorithms that use a wide variety of data sources to evaluate prospective employees. According to a 2016 report from Gartner, an information technology research and advisory firm, those algorithms will replace both manual processing of CVs (résumés) by recruiters and automated CV ranking based on word matching. The beauty of data is that you can convey a superset of information and package it into different types of credentials for different audiences (transfer transcript, employer college experiences report), and align with the data-processing practices of employers.

If you are a higher education leader beginning the credential innovation conversation, consider these three questions. What do our employers want to know about our learners? What do we need to do programmatically to accurately and reliably communicate those outcomes? And, recognizing the various audiences and purposes that credentials serve, what form of credential can best communicate it?

I encourage you to look at your credentials with fresh eyes as a currency for opportunity and the key to reaffirming a transformative value of a postsecondary education, especially in a knowledge economy. By taking a new approach to academic credentials, higher education can give employers what they are looking for and help students turn those credentials into opportunities.


Matthew Pittinsky is an assistant research professor at Arizona State University and CEO of Parchment Inc., a digital transcript company in K-12 and higher education.


Back to Top