In recent months, a spate of headlines has warned consumers about risky education investments that fail to justify the cost. A $21,000 cosmetology school that led to compounding debt and a job that paid just $9 an hour was flagged by the New York Times. “Certificate schools” were the topic of a similar expose from NBC News.
But traditional higher education is no safe haven: In the California State University system, nearly half of the 23 campuses graduate less than 20% of their students in four years. And although the long-term benefits of college are unassailable, as many as 43% of recent college graduates wind up underemployed. Even graduates from top colleges are turning, in record numbers, to “boot camps” and short-term training providers to gain skills that employers say are in short supply.
As it turns out, the focus on just a few cases (or just a single category of providers) belies a far more troubling — and pervasive — phenomenon: Would-be students have precious little information to navigate a massive, and growing, array of educational alternatives.
That’s because the challenge of making good on the promise of education investments stems from the fact that there are now more than 700,000 credentials (offered by a multiplicity of training providers, employers, and associations across the country) an individual can earn — but few useful tools to make sense of it all. In an era where we have grown accustomed to having the ability to sort hotels and flights at the touch of a button, education consumers have no way of knowing which of these hundreds of thousands of credentials make the most sense for them.
That challenge is compounded by the fact that the relative value of credentials is heavily impacted by the demands and priorities of local labor market needs and employers. Recent reports have found that even popular high school programs (which promise to teach students skills that lead to jobs) are often unaligned with the demands of local employers. And that’s because the institutions offering these certificates are, in some cases, just as ill-informed about which skills are in demand as the students that they serve.
Well-designed credentials can provide clear pathways to well-paying, in-demand jobs and, ultimately, promising careers. They can unlock economic mobility for the 44 million adults who lack the skills to find meaningful work, or earn a living wage. But in the absence of tools to help education consumers make informed decisions, even well-intentioned career programs can struggle to effectively serve students.
The good news is that both the Obama and Trump administrations have taken important steps to provide more detailed information regarding the outcomes associated with specific programs. In fact, NBC News relied on these data for its recent investigation. But if it takes an experienced reporter months to decipher this information, how can we expect individuals searching for education and career opportunities to do so on their own?
Providing education consumers with the tools to navigate an increasingly complex credentialing landscape starts with building a transparent, consistent, searchable system that serves students, teachers, counselors, administrators, and policymakers. It requires a standard set of terms to provide a common dictionary for credentials. Data sets that utilize such a language can create a consistent, connected, and open accounting of the landscape of credentials, from career and technical certifications during high school to graduate degrees. And they can power the sort of consumer-friendly tools that we have grown accustomed to in every other facet of our lives.
To date, 14 states and regions and hundreds of providers have already added comparable data on more than 8,400 credentials to our fast growing Credential Registry. But that registry is only as strong as the number of government agencies, institutions, and employers who participate. We need state and federal policies that both enable and financially support a more connected system of data. Without it, we’ll continue to read more headlines about what happens when programs do not have transparent information, but we will see no real change. And we will continue to hurt Americans who are wasting time and money on credentials that do not pay off.
They cannot afford that. Neither can we.