Quality Non-degree Credential


Quality non-degree credentials provide workers and learners with the means to successfully achieve their employment and educational goals. In order to qualify, there must be valid, reliable, and transparent evidence that the credential constitutes quality. Quality non-degree credentials have substantial job opportunities associated with them, have affiliated competencies, and are part of educational or training pathways. Quality non-degree credentials must show evidence of positive employment and earnings outcomes after individuals obtain the credential. Length of training time is usually not considered when it comes to quality non-degree credentials. Quality non-degree credentials are also usually stackable.

The National Skills Coalition defines a quality non-degree credential (NDC) as one that provides individuals with the means to equitably achieve their informed employment and educational goals. There must be valid, reliable, and transparent evidence that the credential satisfies the criteria that constitute quality. Four criteria should be considered for a credential to be identified as a quality credential. NSC recommends the first three criteria be required and the fourth—stackability—be strongly preferred. Each criterion stands not alone but as part of a package. Required Criteria:

  • There must be evidence of substantial job opportunities associated with the credential. Evidence must include quantitative data and direct communication with employers.
  • There must be transparent evidence of the competencies mastered by credential holders; competencies that align with expected job opportunities. A definition of a quality credential need not include any standard regarding length of time.
  • There must be evidence of the employment and earnings outcomes of individuals after obtaining the credential.
  • Strongly Preferred Criterion: The credential would ideally stack to additional education or training. The gold standard is that credentials stack to additional education or training, but there is not a universal pathway to reach this standard so states agreed it should not be an overarching required criterion in defining a quality credential.

The Education Strategy Group (2020) reports that for an occupation to be high-skill, at a minimum, high-skill” should refer to occupations that require education or training beyond a high school diploma—but criteria can be more robust. O*Net, a publicly-available and federally-sponsored database for occupational information, provides an example of robust skill definitions by assigning occupations to one of five “Job Zones.” States are advised to use Job Zone Three as the high-skill threshold, since this level captures occupations that require, at minimum: education beyond a high school diploma; training lasting anywhere from a few months to one year—including apprenticeships; a period of specific vocational preparation —the amount of lapsed time in job-specific training needed for a worker to demonstrate average performance in job-specific situations—lasting one to four years; and previously gained work-related skills, experiences, or knowledge.

A related term is quality assurance (QA) which focuses on the process to achieve quality. It seeks to convince internal and external constituents that a credential provider has processes that consistently produce high-quality outcomes. QA also makes accountability for quality explicit at various points within an institution since quality is the responsibility of everyone in the organization. QA is a continuous, active, and responsive process which includes strong evaluation and feedback loops.

As reported by Van Noy (2020), industry certifications are high quality when they are well designed, reflect actual competencies, and let employers and educational institutions know the holder has a particular, valued set of skills that are rewarded with employment, earnings, and educational credit. When low quality, industry certifications do not signify what they are intended to and can lead to disappointment and waste for individuals, employers, educators, and policymakers alike. By some estimates, there are as many as 5,000 industry certifications in the credential marketplace in the United States but not all are high quality. Given the numbers, it is essential for stakeholders to be able to identify which industry certifications are high quality and which are not.

Ecosystem Relationship

A quality non-degree credential relates to the quality and value components of the ecosystem. Quality non-degree credentials provide transparency and show validity for employers, state workforce agencies, workers, and credential providers.


  • Examples are industry-recognized non-degree credentials that lead to individuals having better job opportunities and better-paying jobs.
  • To provide an actionable way for states to identify quality credentials using existing data and systems, the National Skills Coalition (NSC) offers a specific definition to measure quality among non-degree credentials. Developed in consultation with 12 states, this definition specifies the credential must be designed to be associated with substantial job opportunities and must demonstrate that its holders have mastered competencies.
  • Education Strategy Group’s Building Credential Currency Toolkit presents a step-by-step, evidence-based guide to identifying high-value credentials within priority occupation areas. Though many states already offer and track attainment of non-degree credentials, processes are often either too broad, including non-degree credentials regardless of their currency in the labor market, or too siloed, with each state agency owning a different list of priority credentials and/or incentivizing and monitoring processes. This tool provides a technical model for states to refine and strengthen their process to assemble a unified, statewide list of priority non-degree credentials—those that are necessary to either gain employment or advance in an in-demand, high-skill, high-wage occupation.
  • States often set a threshold for defining “high-wage” since a family-sustaining or living wage is frequently tied to the determination of a quality non-degree credential. A “family-sustaining” wage varies based on a particular geography’s cost of living, but is often greater than the established minimum wage.There are a number of resources available to help states make high-wage determinations – the MIT Living Wage Calculator is an example of such a resource. This Calculator estimates the cost of living in a given state, city, or metropolitan area based on typical expenses in that area.
  • Credential Engine’s Credential Finder is a web-based tool that allows users to search, find, and compare credential information. Some searchers use the tool to find credentials that have third-party quality assurance.

Alternative Terminology


As credentials have grown in popularity in the learn-and-work ecosystem — including non-degree and short-term credentials — providers, educators, and employers needed a way to ensure quality and verify validity of these credentials. Not only does this secure the financial and temporal investment of individuals who have completed credentials but also ensures that employers know the quality and skill set of the worker they are receiving.



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