Today’s Landscape for Non-Degree Credentials

Interview with Michelle Van Noy, Director of the Education and Employment Research Center at the School of Management and Labor Relations at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey

Under the headline, “For Whom the Pell Tolls,” an item in the Fall 2021 edition of Trends for Higher Education describes pending US legislation that could enable students in qualifying short-term workforce education programs to receive Pell Grants. To gain more insight into the growth of non-degree credentials, we turned to a veteran researcher on education and workforce.

Michelle Van Noy was recently promoted to be director of the Education and Employment Research Center at the School of Management and Labor Relations at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, where she is also an associate research professor. Dr. Van Noy, who earned her PhD at Columbia University and her MS and BA at Rutgers, has more than 20 years of experience conducting research on education and workforce. Her research includes studies of technician education, community college non-credit education, student decision-making about majors and careers, quality in non-degree credentials, higher education labor market alignment, and effective practices in workforce education.

We recently spoke with Dr. Van Noy about work she has completed in the area of non-degree credentials, including development of a framework for measuring quality.

Let’s start with the basics. Please briefly describe the broad scope and landscape for non-degree credentials today.

Right now there is a lot of interest and activity in non-degree credentials and what they can offer people in terms of making a link to the labor market. This is not universal, but in many cases when we think about non-degree credentials, it is in reference to their designation as a means to mark a targeted set of skills that can be linked to employment. Many individuals are looking at non-degree credentials as a helpful way to transition to the workplace or advance their career. For some people, this kind of credential may be a quick way to do that. For others, it may be a way to enhance existing education training that they have and to leverage that into specific job opportunities.

Talk a bit about your research on measuring quality of non-degree credentials.

Throughout my work at the Education and Employment Research Center at Rutgers and previous to that, I have spent a lot of time looking at what might be called alternative forms of education. In that context, I have looked broadly at non-credit education within institutions. One particular focus has been non-degree credentials.

One of the issues that I think is really important is that because we are looking at credentials that are offered outside of traditional educational institutions and accreditation structures, we have to think hard about what standards of quality to use. That’s a big question. You don’t want to just offer a lot of false promises about what non-degree credentials can do for people. We need to know that there’s something to back up those claims. It’s not a matter of copying the traditional accreditation system. I think what we’re talking about is building something different.

In my research, my colleagues and I have been trying to conceptualize a thoughtful and comprehensive way to define and then measure quality. That is just essential. As we see the proliferation of non-degree credentials, how do we know that they’re good and that they’re valuable?

Our framework is designed to help us think about what quality is. The framework is very broadly defined. That is intentional, in part because non-degree credentials in a lot of ways are very contextual and serve different goals for different populations in different institutions. At a broad level, that includes the design and content of the credential itself. The framework also focuses on both the learning processes and instructional processes that are integrated into the credential. It also considers the credential’s process for assessing learning. We focus as well on how stackable and portable given credentials are, and how transparent they are. Other metrics are how accessible and affordable the credentials are. Those are qualities that can be categorized as part of how a credential is designed.

We also look at things we might think of as outcomes. One area that we think of separately are the competencies, the actual skills that the credential is intended to document that the credential holder should present. Another outcome is return on investment. What are the tangible benefits of the credential? For example, how successful is an individual who earns one of these credentials in finding employment? What are their earnings like? That analysis can also include benefits to the labor market, such as benefits that accrue to employers in terms of productivity in the workplace. It can also extend to broader societal benefits—in terms, for example, of greater health or economic productivity.

Another important aspect of credential quality is the way that the credential is translated into value. There are a variety of mechanisms that can help ensure that a credential is recognized and has value for individuals or for employers. It could be just general awareness of the credential, or regulations that require a credential’s usage. It could be endorsements and validations from third-party organizations. There are a variety of mechanisms. The key is to think about outcomes of value in the design of the credentials. There are processes that help translate a well-designed credential so that it leads to valuable outcomes.

Broadly speaking, how do you believe the increase in the development of non-degree credentials is impacting and will continue to impact colleges and universities?

The development of non-degree credentials is an important movement within higher education. For a variety of reasons, I think it’s causing people to think about the tangible outcomes and competencies that they want education to convey. I’ve seen some uses of badging, for example, where institutions are looking at very specific milestones that students might attain in the class and creating badges that would have value there. One thing that is interesting is that some of these discussions have both internal and external dimensions: internal in the sense that universities are thinking about things like badging in the context of how such credentials might help students progress on their learning path, and external in the sense that more universities are thinking more intentionally about the meaning that their badges might have in the labor market. Those are different goals.

In general, these conversations are helping to accelerate important discussions about how to better articulate learning outcomes for individuals and how to document those outcomes. In that context, the conversations are also raising a lot of questions within higher ed about the meaning of credentials and how to ensure that they have value. I have heard some people wonder whether we are starting down a path that will lead to a complete restructuring of higher education in terms of what we think of as credentials. It is not yet clear where such conversations might ultimately take us. But the key point is that for now these discussions about credentials are prompting us to take a good look at our goals for learning, and how we document the value that students derive from their education.

What can colleges and universities do to position themselves to develop more non-degree credentials?

How and where non-degree credentials fit in higher education poses interesting questions. Those questions get particularly interesting when we think about higher education creating and developing new credentials. Say a university creates a new badge. Exactly what is that credential and how does it come to have meaning? One might say that just the fact that the badge is being issued by the university is enough for it to be recognized because the university has a reputation and standing. But when the university creates that new badge, are there translational issues about how the badge comes to be known and valued by employers? By students?

Another interesting, related area is the non-degree credentials that other kinds of organizations, such as industry and professional groups, have developed. In many cases, those can be aligned with higher ed offerings, integrated into degree programs, and considered as a supplement to a student’s education. Such credentials may mark or convey a more specific skill. They may serve, for example, as a kind of last-mile training that helps a learner with a strong liberal arts education position themselves for a specific job. In this way, non-degree credentials that industry and professional groups offer can make that student much more marketable in the labor force.

So, for higher education, there may be two paths forward: Universities might create more non-degree credentials themselves, and they may partner with industry and professional groups to integrate existing non-degree credentials into academic programs, perhaps making degree programs stronger overall for learners.

What are some of the barriers that colleges and universities face in trying to develop more non-degree credentials?

There is as interesting ongoing conversation today about how non-degree credentials fit within the current parameters of higher education and its existing processes, including accreditation. Good change is coming out of those conversations. But for now, one of the biggest challenges is that there’s a lot of confusion in the credentialing marketplace about what credentials mean. And so there has to be some intentionality, I think, around creating a credential that will have meaning and be recognized in the field. Doing that intentionally can be a challenge. Institutions of higher education will have to think carefully about how they position themselves in this space. They will also need to be purposeful about making sure that the non-degree credentials that they are designing and offering have meaning and value for students.

What relationships and partnerships might colleges and universities find beneficial as they seek to expand their non-degree credentials?

I think there is interesting potential in work with the professional groups that are already devoting a lot of time thinking about credentialing. Both professional groups and higher education bring considerable expertise and depth of knowledge to any discussion of non-degree credentials. But in some ways professional organizations bring a slightly different orientation to these discussions. Consequently, I think those cross conversations could be very productive across both entities.

Within policy arenas, there has been a lot of discussion lately around what non-degree and short-term credentials mean, and being part of those discussions could be fruitful. I think there could be interesting cross-fertilization between policy-makers and higher education toward the goal of building a more comprehensive system for ensuring quality of non-degree credentials.

What else do you want us to know about this space?

It is important to make clear that non-degree credentials should not be viewed or positioned as being in competition with traditional credentials, but rather as complementary and enhancing. That is essential. So, for example, I would want to allay any concerns of faculty who might think that these kinds of credentials are trying to chip away at the fundamental mission of higher education, such as providing a broad liberal arts education. In many cases, non-degree credentials can enhance such goals. For a learner in a liberal arts program, taking a non-degree credential can expand their horizons and their opportunities, potentially making the liberal arts credential all the more valuable. When you have the two together, I think you can leverage that into very good career opportunities and lifelong learning opportunities.

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