Transparency is a key building block in the learn-and-work ecosystem. Transparency is especially critical in credentialing.
While the general definition of transparency refers to the quality of being easily seen through, transparency is a term that is highly contextualized. The literature, for example, defines transparency in business ethics, wages, media, politics, government, management, online culture, research, technology, sports, and philosophical and literacy criticism. Related terms around transparency underscore the central meaning of the term: open, accessible, and understandable information: access to public information, civic openness in negotiations, ethical banking, lobbying, market transparency, open government, open science, open society, and public record.
In science, engineering, business, and the humanities, transparency means operating in a way that makes it easy for others to see what actions are performed. Transparency implies openness, communication, and accountability. Transparency is practiced in companies, organizations, administrations, and communities.
Nowhere among the mainstream literature’s many contextualized definitions of the term is transparency in the learn-and-work ecosystem described. Yet, there are increasing calls for transparency about credentialing coming from stakeholders such as policymakers, students, educators, quality assurance entities, and employers.
States are a main driver in the demands for transparency, focusing especially on high-value credentials that lead to future employment or education as a key element of economic recovery. In this time of rapid workplace change, states and postsecondary institutions have a responsibility to provide timely, useful information about credential options and pathways that prepare students for jobs in their communities.
With nearly 1 million unique credentials in the U.S., state policymakers recognize that it is often difficult for students to understand the courses and programs of study or training they must take to prepare for their target career. Moreover, employers lack clarity about what skills workers bring to a job, and educators are challenged to keep up with changing requirements in the workplace. The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic crisis have put a premium on upskilling—giving workers new skills to meet new workforce demands—and on greater transparency regarding the skills and knowledge required for in-demand jobs. While 45 states have set attainment goals, most lack robust systems of information related to the credentials available within a state. Such information includes: a credential program’s length and cost, competencies and job skills included in the credential, career pathway information, and earnings and employment outcomes. State legislators are acting to ensure that information about credentials can be easily obtained, compared, and connected to other education and workforce data.
States have addressed policy toward greater transparency chiefly in two areas: information about available credentials and the identification of high-value credentials:
- Information for students about available credentials
- Arkansas SB 397 (2021) created the Higher Education Consumer Guide Act, designed for use by prospective students and parents and legal guardians of prospective students at a state-supported institution of higher education. It requires institutions to share retention and graduation rates; cost of tuition; average amount borrowed and loan default rate; job placement of students within the first three years of graduation; income of college alumni over the first 20 years after completion of their credential; and average number of semesters for completion of an associate or bachelor’s degree.
- Connecticut SB 1202 (2021) required the Office of Workforce Strategy to establish standards to designate certain credentials as “credentials of value.” These standards may include (1) meeting the workforce needs of Connecticut’s employers, (2) completion rates, (3) net cost, (4) whether the credential transfers to or stacks onto another credential of value, (5) average time to completion, and (6) types of employment opportunities and earnings available upon completion. The state’s chief workforce officer is to submit a biennial report about (1) in-demand credential and skills that lead to quality jobs, and (2) models and examples of associate degree programs that, within 12 months, result in students earning an industry-recognized credential that is a pathway to one or more bachelor’s degree programs. By January 1, 2023, the Office of Higher Education must create a database of the credentials offered in Connecticut explaining the skills and competencies earned through a credential. These explanations must be given in uniform terms and plain language, using the terms, descriptions, and standards for comparing and linking credentials in Credential Engine’s Credential Transparency Description Language.
- Kansas HB 2085 (2021) enacted the Students Right To Know Act to provide information on postsecondary education and training options to each student or each student’s parents, and other information relevant to students’ understanding of potential earnings.
- Kentucky HB 419 (2020) required the Council on Postsecondary Education to annually compile data on in-demand jobs within the state. It also required each public postsecondary institution and each campus of the Community and Technical College System to compile data relating to student successes and costs. Finally, it charges the Council with developing a delivery method to ensure access to information by prospective students.
- West Virginia SB 303 (2020) enacted the Students Right to Know Act to help high school students make more informed decisions about their futures. The act aims to ensure that students are aware of the costs and benefits of certificate programs, vocational programs, two-year college, four-year college, and other alternative career paths.
- The State of Washington’s Workforce Board launched a Credential Transparency Advisory Committee representing the state’s public and private higher education institutions, registered apprenticeship, K-12 education, the workforce development system, and policymakers. The Committee explored the role that credentialing plays in the educational and economic mobility of Washingtonians, and talent development for the state’s businesses. The Committee issued a final report with recommendations to build on and take to scale promising practices from Washington and elsewhere that will support the educational, career, and economic momentum of Washingtonians.
- Identification of high-value credentials
- Michigan SB 268 (2020) created the Michigan Reconnect Grant Act to provide a financial aid program for certain residents seeking associate degrees or industry-recognized credentials from certain educational and job-training programs. The bill defines a credential as a certificate or credential that is portable and is sought or accepted by multiple employers within an industry for purposes of recruitment, hiring, or promotion.
- Minnesota SF 2415 (2019) required the commissioner of the Office of Higher Education to administer a credential completion program for adult learners as part of the Minnesota Reconnect Program.
- Utah SB 131 (2018) mandated the development and analysis of credential programs, including stackable credentials.
The nonprofit organization Credential Engine leads the national effort to bring transparency to credentialing. Its mission is focused on ensuring that potential students have the information and the proper tools to navigate the ever-changing landscape of education credentials.
Credential Engine’s Counting U.S. Postsecondary and Secondary Credentials reports that there are nearly 1 million discrete credentials offered in the U.S. With so many credentials to choose from—and without widespread adoption of standards for comparing and evaluating them—people get lost and lose out on opportunity. Transparency can illuminate available pathways through education and training into careers. Transparent data can also help education and training providers, policymakers, employers, and state agencies discover areas of need so they can better allocate resources to create new pathways. It is critical, too, that credential and skills data speak a common language. There are too many different ways to describe similar credentials, skills, and competencies. This makes it nearly impossible to compare offerings.
To address this problem, Credential Engine developed the Credential Transparency Description Language (CTDL)—a common language that allows credential providers to catalog, organize, and describe their credentials. The CTDL is widely used as a standard language to create a common understanding across credentials, skills, competencies, and their outcomes.
When credential and skill data are mapped to the CTDL, providers can upload that information to the public, cloud-based Credential Registry so that it can be openly available. The Registry holds detailed information on all types of credentials and skills. It allows users to explore competencies, learning outcomes, up-to-date market values, and career pathways. It also displays data on credential attainment and quality assurance at schools, professional associations, certification organizations, the military, and more. Together, the CTDL and the Credential Registry can make credential and skill information accessible, discoverable, comparable, and actionable.
The Registry is building its database to contain trusted and reliable information on the following topics:
- Credentials: Degrees, certificates, badges, and more to show what an individual knows and can do.
- Learning Opportunities: Formal opportunities that allow individuals to earn credentials or specific competencies and skills to advance their knowledge and job prospects.
- Assessments: Activities that evaluate what an individual knows and can do as a result of a specific learning opportunity or a collection of them en route to earning a credential.
- Quality Assurance: Processes that help ensure that credentials, learning opportunities, and individual skills and competencies are trusted, valuable, and reliable.
- Skills and Competencies: Abilities that individuals can acquire and have the capacity to apply in the workplace and real-world situations.
- Pathways: Direct connections between education opportunities, skills/competencies, and the workforce that help people find clear avenues to meet their needs.
- Transfer Value: How well an individual credential, learning opportunity, or competency will relate to and apply in other skill development and/or career advancement opportunities.
Making credential data accessible and actionable is a part of the transparency movement in the learn-and-work ecosystem. Credential Engine’s Credential Finder is a web-based application that helps users find and compare credential information. Users can create, download, and share information such as identifying credentials, skills/competencies, learning opportunities, and pathways to aid in navigation and decision-making.
Another transparency tool is the verification and storage of learning acquired through credentialing. Stakeholders such as policymakers, employers, and education providers are searching for ways to help learners and workers find the most efficient and equitable pathways to secure the right skills and credentials that lead to good jobs. Verifiable Learning and Employment Records (LERs) are emerging as a tool key to data transparency and learner/worker sovereignty.
Access to Public Information
Relationship to Ecosystem
States and postsecondary institutions have a responsibility to provide accessible, timely, useful, trusted and reliable information about credentialing options and pathways that prepare learners for jobs needed in their communities. Transparency in credentialing is critical to learners seeking credentialing options—and to employers seeking to understand the array of credentials presented by job candidates.
- Credential Engine has created a pilot LER Action Guide that provides steps to improve career navigation and provide more equitable access to useful information through Learning and Employment Records (LERs). The goal is to create ecosystems where LERs are (1) widely accessible, understood, and trusted; (2) inclusive of all aspects of an individual’s education, training, military, and work achievements, and (3) shareable so that LERs securely connect people to opportunities.
- Indiana was an early partner with Credential Engine to address transparency issues. The Indiana Commission for Higher Education published all of the state’s health care credentials to the Credential Registry to assist the state’s educational and economic planning efforts. (This growing industry sector represents 25 percent of the state’s in-demand jobs.)
- ACE’s College Credit Recommendation Service (CREDIT®) focuses on creating transparency in the marketplace. ACE’s work addresses transcripts and making the credentials attached to them more relevant. ACE worked with the organization Credly to develop a digital credential offering on-demand access to an academic transcript to every individual who completes alternative credit courses or workforce training recommended for college credit through ACE. Any student who completes an ACE credit-recommended course will receive a digital badge from the provider that is endorsed by ACE. This badge will contain useful information for the recipient, including competencies and skills the learner acquired. This new transcript will display in a format that adheres to the Postsecondary Electronic Standards Council XML transcription standards. Meeting these standards ensures the student record is portable, interoperable, and transfers to other platforms.
To address the complexity of the U.S. credential marketplace and build a transparent credential landscape, the Lumina Foundation and Business Roundtable joined forces to create Credential Engine following the three-year proof-of-concept Credential Transparency Initiative (CTI) conducted by researchers at George Washington University.
Lumina Foundation President, Jamie Merisotis noted: “The vision around credential transparency and a common schema has been coalescing over the last several years. We need a credential marketplace that is transparent, searchable, and comprehensive.” In Merisotis’ vision of the new marketplace, employers, jobseekers and policy makers will all have the same information for each credential—the skills and competencies the credential signals, the value of those skills in the labor market, and their linkages to other credentials and career paths.
Launched in 2016 to bring clarity to all credentials (degrees, certificates, apprenticeships, licenses, badges, etc.), Credential Engine set out to build a cloud-based Credential Registry, develop the first common credentialing language to describe credential information, and support a marketplace for applications to more effectively use and integrate credential information.
Information available through the organization’s Credential Finder, allows anyone to “pop the hood” of a credential and see what’s inside—including critical information such as competencies, learning opportunities, connections to other credentials, quality assurance information, assessment details, costs, and more. Since the public launch in December 2017, the Credential Registry has grown to more than 1,850 participating organizations and nearly 42,000.
What is transparency? – Definition from WhatIs.com (techtarget.com) https://www.techtarget.com/whatis/definition/transparency
NCSL (July 1, 2021). Credential Transparency https://www.ncsl.org/research/education/credential-transparency.aspx
New Focus on Transparency in Credentials Helps Validate Learning Experiences (acenet.edu) On Transparency In Credentials Helps Validate Learning Experiences (August 15, 2018).
Zanville, H. (February 5, 2019). When Funders Call For A Map of Credential Transparency Initiatives, We Should Pay Attention. Lumina Foundation.