Webinar Emphasizes Need for Incremental Credentialing

by Lauren Provencher / Jan 11, 2021

Learning credentials determine students’ outcomes and success in their desired field in the U.S. However, the standard credentialing system often leaves these students behind.

In a webinar titled “Incremental Credentialing: Credential as You Go,” several scholars shared different approaches to credentialing that foster positive academic outcomes. These individuals collaborated as a team in their efforts to conceptualize the credentialing processes in post secondary education in the United States and propose a more efficient model.

Sponsored by SUNY Empire State College and the Lumina Foundation, the event featured Nan Travers, Pat Pillsworth, and Ashley Frank, all of whom are from SUNY Empire State College. Gianina Baker from the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment and Bitsy Cohn of Cohn Consulting also participated.  

Travers began the webinar by discussing what is meant by incremental credentialing and the shortcomings of the current system. She explained there is currently a four-tiered degree system in the U.S., starting with an associate’s degree and ending with a doctorate.

“In many ways this is a punitive system in that for anyone who doesn’t complete a degree is treated as though they do not have learning,” Travers said.

Incremental credentialing, on the other hand, involves students earning smaller credentials as they gain knowledge instead of credentials attained after learning. It includes certificates, micro-credentials, and credentials earned through external learning. As a result, students are recognized for what they learn as they progress through higher education learning, which encourages building skills and greater preparation going into the workforce.

In terms of adults who have not earned a college credential, approximately 31% have attempted college and have completed some higher-education learning. Travers said a lack of credentials can make it difficult to attain a good-paying job.  

“By credentialing competencies along the way, it really does help on job acquisition,” she said.

When analyzing credentialing data in the U.S., it is evident the current system leads to substantial race disparities. Travers said that of the total adults who received a college credential, approximately 72% were White, 10% were Black, and 9% were Latinx.

Following a discussion of differentials in credentialing across subgroups, Baker discussed the background research that led to the development of the incremental credentialing model. The team's findings revealed what structures currently exist that help students earn credentials in three areas: state policies, workforce development, and state systems.

Travers then emphasized the need to break out of the four-tiered standard system and focus on where credentialing should start and end. She said learners have their own cycles of life and learning that necessitate a system in which credentialing mirrors what they have learned through education, not simply the degree they earn.

The model of incremental credentialing includes a process in which students can attain microcredentials while pursuing a degree in a multipronged approach. The first two methods, Stepwise-As-You-Go and Add-On-As-You-Go, go hand in hand and represent ways in which students can pursue a degree while attaining multiple credentials. Travers said the incremental credential model can be thought of in terms of steps.  

“Each one stacks into the next, and at each point, external learning can be brought into the credential, and the credentials can grow,” Travers said.

In the next method, Auto-Award-As-You-Go, she highlighted putting the responsibility of credentialing on higher education institutions rather than students. Travers suggested implementing credentials that are automatically awarded to students as they meet the requirements without the need to apply for or seek out information on them. The need for this comes as many students are unaware of all the pathways they can choose from and the credentials they can earn.

Cohn then discussed qualitative data the Cohn Consulting team gathered to determine the barriers to implementing an incremental credentialing system. Team members interviewed 36 experts in the U.S. on the topic and concluded that the higher education business model, quality assurance, and transparency were obstacles in instituting the system.

With respect to opportunities, the team found there was large-scale communication through data management, collection, and sharing that allows larger numbers of people to establish what is known so they can learn from one other. Cost was also another opportunity. According to Cohn, student costs and financial aid can alter the current system.

She then highlighted the response from the individuals the team talked to for the incremental credentialing model in terms of equity and sustainability. Many saw the model as a way to level the playing field among students and meet them were they are academically and personally; however, they emphasized the need for effective engagement strategies.

“Pre-enrollment engagement strategy should not assume a level of sophistication necessary to discover, access, and navigate pathways, and it was pointed out as a large failing of many projects when it came to building in equity from the very beginning that the assumption that all students would equally access the information about these projects needed to be smashed,” Cohn said.

In terms of sustainability, respondents determined state- and system-level structures and visibility were key factors in implementing the model. They also emphasized the need for student activities being neutral to the provider and the inclusion of employers early on in the process.

Overall, the team members discovered several important themes during their research that were necessary for successful implementation of the model. The findings show that the incremental credentialing system requires a scalable competency framework with student-centered data and evaluation that is modeled to serve students rather than the institution.

View the Dec. 8, 2020, webinar.