Unified Credential Framework (UCF)

Overview

Western Governors University published the Unified Credential Framework (UCF) in March 2022 to ensure that the array of credentials awarded through the university (degrees, competency badges, certificates, certifications, specializations) are relevant, verified, transparent, and portable. The framework provides standard definitions and guidance on the credentials and mastery classes offered by the university to ensure a transparent and consistent credentialing strategy where each skill and credential is backed by clear definitions and value for learners. The framework also enables alignment and crosswalks with external credential and industry frameworks.

Four criteria drive the framework:

  • Workforce Aligned Competencies and Skills — Credentials recognize professional and personal competencies and skills explicitly aligned to high-demand workforce needs.
  • Relevant and Authentic Assessment — Credentials require validation of achievement of competence, which is assessed using authentic, real-world workforce use cases.
  • Transparent and Portable — Credentials are issued in open standards allowing for seamless portability and transparency of credentials between organizations.
  • Validated Open Skills — Credentials represent skills aligned to industry partners and/or external bodies ensuring market value.

The framework focuses on skills because skills are a critical intersection between the worlds of work and learning. Skills are viewed increasingly as the new currency of the labor market globally, and a foundation for bridging the gap between employers, education providers, and individuals’ return on their educational investment. The “tagline” for the framework is “ensuring student-centered value with skills-denominated credentials.”

The framework is predicated on the use of a structured theory for understanding skills and microcredentials to create more transparency into what postsecondary credentials represent, and the value they hold for individuals, employers, and education providers.

While the framework focuses primarily on postsecondary education in the U.S, it also offers two additional types of alignment:

  • Secondary Education Alignment to ensure that the university’s credentials are pertinent to students preparing for college or career readiness and those pursuing technical and career certifications.
  • UNESCO World Reference Levels to offer a global reference point for qualifications, to ensure that WGU’s credentials have international relevance.

Background

WGU conducted research into the credentialing landscape to inform the development of the framework. Research included looking for standard definitions; studying fundamental credential components and intersections between academic credentials and the workforce; reviewing international models, US-based credentialing initiatives, and other higher education institutions efforts.

Many issues were identified in the research which resulted in key findings including:

  • A landscape in which new models for ensuring the value and relevance of postsecondary education are rapidly developing in the U.S. and globally.
  • Learners need better understanding of the value and relevancy which their education provides including information on the return on their educational investment.
  • Education providers need to ensure the relevance of the credentials for employer uses. This requires transparency into skills an individual possesses based on the credentials they hold.
  • New models are needed to guide an understanding of credentials so that all have equitable pathways to opportunity.
  • There is growing skepticism in the value of college degrees.
  • The rising costs of a college education are impacting the credentialing landscape and student decisions about their educational paths.
  • There is a prevalent belief that students are not getting the skills they need to be successful in the workplace.
  • There is a lack of clear alignment between credentials and the world of work.
  • There is a perceived disconnect between what graduates learn in college and what they will need to be successful on the job.

The framework was designed with these factors in mind. The model was further conceptualized as one that any organization can implement for a clearer line of sight into the value and relevance of postsecondary credentials, not only WGU.

Western Governors University

WGU was established in 1997 as a student-centered university with a competency-based curricular model to create more equitable pathways to opportunity in support of workforce development needs.

In 2020, WGU collaborated with the Open Skills Network (OSN) to develop a universal, machine- and human-readable language for describing skills known as Rich Skill Descriptors (RSD). The RSD is a structured data syntax that provides a common language for defining and describing skills in a way that can be understood by both individuals and technology systems.

In 2024, the WGU Skills Library contained more than 20,000 RSDs that span many job roles and industries. Each RSD in the Skills Library was developed in conjunction with practitioners, employers and hiring managers in their respective industries.

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