Gandal: Not All Industry Credentials Are Created Equal. Here Are 4 Steps for Figuring Out Which Are the Best for Student Success

We’re all familiar with the data: Nearly every new job created today, from machinists and carpenters to coders and nurses, requires education or training beyond high school. And while four-year degrees remain valuable, they’re not always necessary to access well-paying jobs. This new reality has sparked significant efforts across the country in both K-12 and higher education to promote shorter-term certificates and industry credentials that can open doors to economic opportunity for less time and cost.

More than 40 states have set ambitious postsecondary attainment goals, and many are wrestling with whether and how to count non-degree credentials. At the same time, the K-12 sector is increasingly acknowledging that the industry-recognized credentials that students earn in high school can be real door-openers to well-paying careers and further education. More than half of states now allow these credentials to count in their high school accountability systems, much like dual enrollment or Advanced Placement courses.

But with thousands of these credentials available across industries, and with very few mechanisms for deciphering which ones are valuable, how is it possible to determine which meet a high-quality threshold?

A new report from Education Strategy Group, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and Advance CTE presents a road map for how K-12 and higher education leaders can answer this question. Credential Currency: How States Can Identify and Promote Credentials of Value looks at leading practices around the country and presents a path forward for states interested in increasing credential attainment.

These key ideas are among the report’s recommendations:

1. Employers must serve as a guide as states work to identify which credentials lead to good jobs. Credentials are valuable only if they provide up-to-date training for individuals in the workforce. In many states, the processes for determining this are fairly thin. States must mine labor forecasts and harness employer signals in job postings, hiring decisions, and employee pay to determine which credentials are high-value, and use that to inform priority credential lists. They must prioritize credentials that count for or lead to postsecondary credit as well, so students can progress through their learning on their path to attainment and economic opportunity.

2. K-12, higher education, and workforce leaders should do this together. All three face the same questions when determining which postsecondary credentials have value in the labor market, but they often work alone. A more coherent approach that brings the three sectors together will yield a better-aligned set of priorities and improved outcomes.

3. Once quality credentials are identified, incentivize their growth. K-12 schools and districts respond to incentives. When new measures are introduced into accountability systems and schools receive credit for achieving them, attention to those areas increases dramatically. States should promote high-value industry credentials in their high school performance metrics, and include those with labor market value when counting progress toward meeting their postsecondary attainment goals. Across K-12 and higher education, we need to do a better job of communicating the value of these credentials to students and families so they are motivated to pursue them.

4. Improve the quality and transparency of credential data. Currently, credential reporting in a majority of states is a little like baseball players calling their own balls and strikes — we blindly accept students’ and schools’ word for it. Accuracy is too important to rely on self-reported data. States need actual data, direct from the source, and they need to have strong quality control mechanisms in place to ensure the data collected and reported on credential attainment are robust and valid.

The stakes here are high. If we get this right, many more young people will be encouraged into pathways that culminate in a credential that is much more powerful than a high school diploma alone. But if quality standards aren’t used to determine which credentials should count, the floodgates will be thrown open and young people might be steered inadvertently down dead-end paths.

Not only would this be bad for students, it could also significantly set back the career readiness movement, which has gained considerable steam in states and communities. All the goodwill that has been built up may fade unless we can demonstrate that credential attainment represents a solid return on investments for the states and provides clear value to students. The old stereotypes of career readiness being the lesser option will re-emerge if students are guided to complete the easiest credentials, regardless of their value. This is particularly true if it turns out that traditionally underserved students have limited access to high-quality credentials.

With a focus on quality, K-12 and higher education leaders can collaboratively set students up for success. Attaining a credential with value as early as high school can have significant benefits: minimizing accumulation of student debt, accelerating attainment, and increasing the likelihood of finding employment with family-sustaining wages.

The foundation of economic opportunity for students starts with a credential that has labor market value. It is up to K-12, postsecondary, and workforce leaders to collectively ensure that the foundation is built of concrete, not sand.

Matt Gandal is president of Education Strategy Group, which supports America’s education leaders and employers at the transition points that have the highest stakes for students and the highest impact for state and local economies.

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