Issue #11: Navigating the credential maze
Running to stand still.
The credentials market for degree and non-degree programs is… complex.
A recent report from the non-profit Credential Engine identified 1,076,358 different credentials – from specialized certificates to bachelor's degrees to PhDs.
Credential Engine started producing these reports in 2018. Back then there were “just” 334,114 credentials. In the last four years, the number of certifications has more than trebled. And from 2021 to 2022, there's been a 38% increase in providers issuing certificates.
So it's a growing field, but navigating the quality of the providers remains hard and is getting harder. That's a lot of different options for learners.
Credential Engine used different data sources to create the report, as well as finding new ways to identify credentials or estimate how many exist, but, when you break down the data into different categories, it's clear that some areas are growing more than others.
The most significant growth has been among occupational licenses, which have grown from just 11,837 in 2018 to a whopping 656,753 in 2022.
Registered apprenticeships are having a moment, too, growing 17% from 2021 to 2022 – reflecting the increased attention from the Biden administration, and at the state level, towards using apprenticeships as a driver of skills-based learning.
Expect this trend to continue in 2023. As the focus around college alternatives coalesces, I fully expect apprenticeships to play a bigger role in the US (much as they already do in the UK).
The last three years have also seen growth for online course completion certificates, as Covid and improved technology has lowered the barrier for individual course creators.
The tech sector has experienced an explosion in “certs” for specific skills. This growth has been fuelled by providers looking to differentiate their offerings from traditional university certificates, and provide legitimacy to their course outcomes.
The category saw a 44% increase from 2020 to 2022. Likewise, digital badges more than doubled from 2018 to 2022.
Navigating this growth is particularly hard for learners. There is no independent quality control for these courses. And a lot of online course review sites aren’t objective. The most prominent earn money through affiliate fees, and so the incentives aren’t aligned to direct learners to the best courses.
There’s opportunity here for an independent service like Wirecutter or Trusted Reviews to emerge for education.
Bootcamp certificates have also more than doubled from 2018 to today, with the category seeing a 38% growth since 2021. This is surprising given the slow-down in on-campus teaching due to Covid, but it likely reflects the ease of launching entirely remote bootcamps rather than having to invest in physical space.
We could also be seeing an expansion by bootcamps into topic areas other than software development. A recent Burning Glass report showed demand for coding is pre-2019 levels. Now that the growth phase for coding bootcamps is over, these providers need to find new topic areas to teach.
As we pointed out last time, this growth in bootcamp certificates has yet to be reflected in the number of students taking bootcamps. The total number of graduates is only expected to grow by 17% in 2022, perhaps reflecting a wider distribution of students across different bootcamps, or a move from bootcamps into other modes of education, such as apprenticeships.
As the report outlines, there is a need for better distinctions between the different categories and a more straightforward way to understand the differences between badges and certificates.
To make progress and address critical issues highlighted in this report, it would be helpful to know more about how credentialing practices overlap. Some have cast doubt on whether there is a relationship between certifications and skills. But evidence suggests that certifications do improve performance in fields that maintain certification standards.
This is an area of opportunity for technology certificates, which at present offer limited standards for providers to design credentials against. This could include information on how certifications offered by higher education institutions can be used to earn non-degree certificates, or how badges and certificates can be stacked to earn other credentials.
More information is also needed regarding the content of different credentialing programs. In order to properly categorize and understand them, such as the competencies they aim to highlight, the time they require to complete, and their relative quality in the marketplace.
What does this all mean?
Certificate growth shows there is significant demand from employers and learners not served by existing institutions. The latest Credential Engine report shows that non-academic credentials continue to grow year-over-year, despite the challenges for learners and employers to know which ones are valuable or of high quality.
Navigating the maze of certificates and connecting skills-training to employment are two trends I’m keeping a close eye on in 2023.
Navigating the maze
With the sheer number of certificates, the most significant risk is quality. Many of these programs fail to effectively assess skill retention and application on the job or even make their outcomes transparent. As Matt Tower points out, this report shows that no person, organization, or organizing body is even close to controlling the situation.
Nonprofits like CIRR and Workforce Talent (for bootcamps) have attempted to plug this gap, but there’s opportunity here for an independent service like Wirecutter or Trusted Reviews to emerge for education.
Connecting skills to employment
The second major problem is connecting the skills taught in all these programs to employment. SkillsEngine is an extensive digital library of over 20,000 skills needed for all the jobs you can think of—and, importantly, for occupations that don't exist yet.
The system tracks a broad range of soft skills and technical abilities – everything from communicating with senior leaders to recording JIRA tickets. Related skills can be bundled into skill sets, arranged, and rearranged to create skills profiles for jobs as varied as a delivery driver and a UX designer.
This seems like an area of opportunity for providers to map the skills taught in their programs to real jobs, using the SkillsEngine library. Or for companies to align courses with the requirements of regulators, such as Ofqual in the UK. And to foster more partnerships with government ministries or large companies.
The second part of this problem is providing students with real-world work. Apprenticeships come the closest to assessing actual skill development on the job. But they primarily depend on the employer being able to dedicate time to the learner while in the program.
One company worth keeping an eye on is Parker Dewey, which offers remote project-based internships that it calls "micro-internships." The projects typically take students between five and forty hours to complete over a few weeks. The service acts as a bridge between skills-based programs (like bootcamps) and employers, allowing students to gain necessary work-based experience, and allowing employers to try out graduates without committing to full-time contracts.
If a bootcamp or credential organization can connect actual, skills-based assessment with real-world experience and close the knowledge-experience gap, then they might be onto something. You can start to see how these organizations and certificates could be strung together into what Stephen Miller calls “formal definitions of priority jobs” (e.g., data scientists, big data architect, etc.).
Until next time.