I remember sitting at an innovation convening nine years ago listening to the great disruptor Randy Bass, vice provost of Georgetown University, predict the “unbundling” of higher education. I had created the Education Design Lab a year earlier to help colleges realize this dream and it was fun to see another early advocate score a roomful of nodding heads as he showed his atomized learning slide of the future. It seemed the idea– that a four to six-year full-time degree contract, by definition, excluded many buyers of education– was starting to catch on. Unbundling meant access to more affordable, more flexible, and more relevant bytes of learning. But, it also would unleash chaos into the credential market.
Fast forward to now. Yep, here we are, as Credential Engine has painstakingly chronicled for a fourth year with its latest Counting Credentials Report. And this chaos is why I recently joined their board.
I’ve just been reading how Aristotle set about classifying forms of life for the first time 2500 years ago, and frankly, this feels just as difficult. (Aristotle also said, “There is no great genius without a touch of madness.”) Credential Engine had the mad vision, at its inception five years ago, of organizing all credentials for colleges, learners, states, and app developers to make common sense of them. Common here means universal, that we could get to a point where not just degrees, but also other categories of credentials– certificates, microcredentials, apprenticeships–share a currency that means the same to any employer, any learner, and any learning provider, anywhere.
The 2022 report, out this week, highlights some key trends and serves as a stark reminder that we have to get a handle on this messy universe of innovation to support learners’ interests as well as the economy’s regional skills pipelines.
- Unnavigated waters ahead: If you count all kinds of post-secondary “unbundled” credentials, there are 800,000 individual learning experiences to choose from vs. 273,000 degrees in the US market. A large percentage of the unbundled credentials are outside the higher ed system, so not known to guidance counselors or eligible for student loan financing, and most are not being tracked to determine their efficacy.
- The scale is tipping: There are 30,000 post-secondary providers out there trying to offer credentialed learning experiences, today only one-third of them are traditional colleges. Another 23% are registered apprenticeship providers. But just as many providers are operating largely by their own sets of rules, which is partly why rapid innovation has been possible.
- A settling market?: The big changes from the 2021 report are an increase in non-credit certificates issued by colleges and online course completion certificates issued by private providers like LinkedIn Learning and Coursera, as well as digital badges generally. But the overall increase in credentials is not as high as previous years, suggesting the market may be settling down.
You might read my takeaways as a recommendation to put all credentials back in the degree box. But Pandora has left the station. And she’s on the right train, in my view.
My real takeaway: can it be a higher-speed train on track to:
1) map the genome of skills, 2) match them to credentials, 3) socialize and isolate the best credentials among employers, 4) track hiring and wage gain trends, and 5) build killer apps for consumers and guidance counselors to make it all visible.
Which brings us back to why Credential Engine exists. This year’s report shows that the market for learning is broadening. Yes, the dial on the consumer chaos meter is reading too loud. And the careful explanations, reclassifications and changing data sources we can see in the tables and footnotes give us a useful backstage tour of how hard it is to define and sync up all the types of learning opportunities across long-siloed college and workforce bureaucracies.
But here is the good news. The founders of Credential Engine were not mad to think they could prototype, pilot, and scale this social good for the benefit of democratizing learning. More and more institutions are joining the Credential Registry and digitizing their courses, which over time will be a boon for visibility of quality. On Credential Engine’s fifth anniversary, the Credential Registry has data on 42,000 credentials from over 25 states, nearly 1,000 competency frameworks including over 53,000 competencies (which provide the mapping for career progressions) and 2500 “transfer values” that will make the transfer process more seamless as learners stitch together their far-flung learning experiences into records of meaning.
I did not think we’d get from the “unbundled learning” powerpoint slide 9 years ago to this point so quickly.
I believe the speed comes from a largely unexpected and perfect storm of trillion-dollar student debt, a pandemic-induced forced march to flexible learning options, and the skills shortages faced by employers. So now the speed for the new filing system to get to critical mass is just as important. Let’s embrace the useful complexity and diversity of this market, and fill up the Credential Registry “filing system” with data that sets us up to celebrate rather than curse the chaos. And let’s live up to the equity promise of a skills-based learning and hiring continuum before some other perfect storm distracts us.
This blog is by Kathleen deLaski.