Bringing States Together to Identify Credentials of Value

Postsecondary credentials matter more today than anytime previously in history.  While bachelor’s degrees remain important, there are over 30 million good jobs nationwide that are held by those with an associate degree, long-term postsecondary certificate, journeyman’s license, or industry-recognized credential.

In responding to this economic shift, over 40 states have set postsecondary credential attainment goals, and many are wrestling with the ways in which to include non-degree credentials in that work. In addition, over half of states incorporate industry-recognized credentials in their K-12 accountability systems, and many have selected high-value credentials as their quality program indicator within Perkins V, sending a clear signal to schools, districts, and higher education institutions to prioritize credential attainment as a first step on a longer-term education and career pathway. Yet both postsecondary education and K-12 leaders—along with their workforce development peers—often struggle to identify which of those non-degree credentials actually put learners—especially those who are underrepresented in family-sustaining wage jobs in our economy—on a path toward economic and career success.

ESG launched our Credential Currency Initiative to address this problem in two ways, thanks to the generous support of Lumina Foundation. First, ESG designed and built a suite of tools and models to help state leaders develop a defensible list of high-value non-degree credentials, create incentives to grow attainment of those credentials, and more effectively collect and report on that attainment. Second, ESG convened a Credentials of Value (CoV) Institute comprised of senior education and policy leaders across six states and provided them with technical support to use that toolkit to refine and validate their list of priority non-degree credentials and bring all sectors—postsecondary, workforce development, and K-12—together around a common understanding of credential value aligned with postsecondary attainment goals.

Our CoV Institute was designed as a one-year cohort-based, cross-sector initiative to support states committed to pushing themselves and the field to rigorously and reliably identify non-degree credentials linked to in-demand, high-skill, high-wage occupations, and increasing the number of learners who earn them. States were invited to participate in the institute based on their non-degree credential work to date, readiness to re-examine and reconsider existing credential lists or build new lists aligned across sectors, willingness to engage in cross-sector partnership, and commitment to connecting this work to their postsecondary attainment efforts. Ultimately, Florida, Kentucky, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Ohio, and Washington were selected to participate.

Each state formed cross-sector teams to lead the work, which were comprised of members of governors’ offices, state postsecondary, workforce development, and K-12 agencies, and other key stakeholders. ESG supported these states throughout the Institute in designing a continuum of priority non-degree credentials for use across their education and training systems. Using skill, wage, and demand thresholds to identify high-value occupations and their associated credentials, which were validated by employers, each state worked toward clearly signaling to learners and families, schools, institutions of higher education, and training providers the market value of state-approved credentials. Each state also started early work to consider the ways in which credentials might be built into their policy context, including K-12 accountability, conferring postsecondary credit, counting toward postsecondary attainment goals, or myriad other policy possibilities. 

As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold midway through this work, ESG shifted our support to meet states’ evolving needs. We took a more active role in helping them analyze real-time labor market trends and associated credentialing demand. We focused on verifying sectors and occupations that maintained market relevance or grew in labor market value as the pandemic lingered, and we helped them identify those sectors that fell out of favor within the economy. Our support focused on helping states feel confident that the credentials identified on their list would support economic recovery, and we shifted to helping them plan ahead for longer-term work.

A few highlights of state-specific work from the Institute:

– North Carolina deeply engaged employers and educators to learn more about the types of credentials and skills most needed and valued in the state’s workforce.

– Kentucky executed new, robust labor market analyses to be used across the K12, postsecondary, and workforce systems to identify the state’s most promising occupations and credentials.

– Florida phased out long-supported credentials with limited labor market value to increase the alignment between the credentials incentivized in K-12 and those employers seek. 

Building on this work, ESG continues to support states as they push to identify and refine the high-value credentials most needed in their states and build those credentials into high-quality programs of study.