Hallmarks of Excellence in Credential Innovation – UPCEA

Last Updated: 03/10/2024

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Developed by the University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA), the Hallmarks of Excellence in Credential Innovation are a collection of best practices and aspirational goals that can help guide institutions of higher learning to assess their efforts involving alternative credentials. 

Eight pillars, or best practices, focus on alternative credentials within the context of universities and academic degrees.  The Hallmarks of Excellence in Credential Innovation also serve as a toolkit for those in online and professional continuing education who would champion and advocate for alternative credentials at institutions where such efforts might be viewed with skepticism. 

The Hallmarks of Excellence call for: 

  • An idealistic, aspirational view of nontraditional credentials — alternative credentials should occupy a more central space, consistent with the values of their institutions, and integrate their universities with the concrete educational needs of employers and professions. 
  • An entrepreneurial agility to bridge the needs of external constituents with the resources, reputation, and mission of traditional universities — alternative credentials should be inventive and responsive in ways that promote new programs, models, and recognition, thereby transporting their schools into new territory. 
  • A self-conscious ethical focus that reflects the highest ideals of academic institutions and the greater purpose of innovation in credentialing — in a largely lawless environment, where alternative credentials could easily exploit the absence of accountability and consistency, there is an even greater imperative to exemplify a longer, larger, and lasting view of the importance of these initiatives. 

The eight pillars identified in leading credential innovation in traditional universities are: 

  1. Advocacy and Leadership within the University — Recognizing that alternative credentials, by their very nature, challenge traditional settings, those leading efforts to expand credential offerings need to be adept and agile in defining and defending these in the languages, values, mission, and structures of academe—and potentially within a culture of skepticism. 
  1. Entrepreneurial Initiative — Recognizing that new forms of credentialing command imagination and investigation, risk-taking and respect for academic processes, and a skill set to manage change responsibly, those leading these efforts must have the drive and discipline to create new initiatives. 
  1. University-to-Business Stakeholder Engagement — Recognizing that new forms of credentialing cannot occur in an ivory tower, those leading these efforts must welcome employers, professions, and industries as partners; respond to their needs and objectives; and seek their ongoing involvement, and even expertise, in ways uncommon in traditional academe. 
  1. The Faculty Experience — Recognizing the role of subject-matter expertise in learning, those leading these efforts must identify and cultivate teaching talent—from within and beyond the academy—and ensure their success in traditional and online classrooms. 
  1. The Learner Experience — Recognizing that the learner might seek a swift, convenient, and even transactional relationship, those leading these efforts must design programs that are easily accessible and immediately valuable. 
  1. Digital Technology — Recognizing the need to bundle a lifetime of unique credentials and accomplishments, those leading these efforts must find new ways of verifying learning and enabling students to document their achievements. 
  1. External Advocacy and Leadership Beyond the University — Recognizing the ill-defined, unregulated, and poorly understood nature of alternative credentials, those leading these efforts must find external forums to educate consumers and other constituents on the value of alternative credentials by building awareness, appreciation, and, ultimately, consistency. 
  1. Professionalism — Recognizing the general lack of oversight and clarity in this dynamic phase, those leading these efforts have a unique historical opportunity to envision and embody exemplary professional standards of both excellence and integrity. 

A Credential Maturity Index was developed as a tool for institutions to examine their organization’s relative maturity around the best practices identified in the Hallmarks of Excellence.  The results of the index were utilized by survey respondents who attended Convergence 2023: Credential Innovation in Higher Education in Washington, D.C. 


In 2021, UPCEA formed the Council for Credential Innovation and the Alternative Credentials Network. Together, the new bodies formed a new community to advance quality standards, policy, and best practices in credential innovation and the alternative and non-degree credentials arena.

A foundational resource in this effort was UPCEA’s Hallmarks of Excellence in Credential Innovation, a quality framework for non-degree credentials at the enterprise level.

A benchmark study was also released by UPCEA and research partners Modern Campus and The EvoLLLution, “Shifting Paradigms: Understanding Institutional Perspectives on Microcredentialing.” The report revealed how alternative credentials position higher education institutions to overcome one of the greatest critiques leveled at them, which is a lack of connectivity between programming and the needs of learners and the labor market.

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