States Can Foster Economic Opportunity by Promoting High-Value Credentials


A computer support specialist with a Cisco Certified Network Associate credential enjoys a median salary of $56,275, while a worker with a certification in food services typically earns a median wage of only $20,180. This is critical information students and families need to make informed choices about their education and career paths.

Unfortunately, such information can be hard to come by. States can collect these data, but many of them do not. At ExcelinEd, we discovered that only 28 states currently tally which industry-recognized credentials students are earning at the K-12 level. And nearly half of the 50 states lack the ability to understand which students are earning credentials and whether those credentials are aligned with high-value job opportunities. That leaves millions of families in the dark about credentials that can open doors to economic opportunity.

Even in states that do collect data on credential attainment, the picture is also bleak: Just 19 percent of credentials earned across all states are in-demand by employers. And many of the most commonly earned credentials are low-level general career-readiness certificates that hold little to no value in the labor market.

To put that in perspective: four out of every five credentials earned by students are NOT prioritized or sought by employers in hiring. It’s a mistake to encourage students—especially those for whom a credential may be their ticket to the middle class—to earn credentials that do not lead to a good job.

These credential can play an important role. The roads to economic security and self-sufficiency look far different today than they once did. Significant economic shifts—spurred both by technological advances and the lingering impacts of the Great Recession—have fundamentally altered education and work. Postsecondary degrees are often a gateway for students to access good jobs, but there are other pathways learners can take to get there, including non-degree opportunities like industry-recognized credentials.

States and communities across the country have begun to recognize the significance of industry-recognized credentials in the new economy. Twenty-six states include them in their high school accountability systems, and others are considering counting such credentials toward their postsecondary attainment goals. There are thousands of these credentials available, however, and identifying which lead to occupations that can sustain a family, grow a business, and fuel an economy is complex.

The choices states make about which industry-recognized credentials “count” will either encourage learners down a meaningful career path or unwittingly steer them toward low-wage, low-skill jobs. Just as technology has shifted the economy, we must upgrade from providing learners with a folded map that overwhelms them with options to GPS guidance that pinpoints the most productive routes to prosperity.

At Education Strategy Group, we are helping states and communities set a high bar for determining the value of a credential: connecting learners to jobs that are not only plentiful but also pay a family-sustaining wage. This demands that K-12, postsecondary, workforce development, and industry leaders collaborate to identify and validate the credentials that lead to such opportunities.

Based on our research and engagement with a group of state and national experts, we recommend all states take specific steps to help more students earn credentials with labor market value: That includes:

• Identifying in-demand, high-skill, high-wage occupations and associated credentials;

• Validating those findings with employers and finalizing a statewide list of priority credentials;

• Incentivizing priority credential attainment through funding strategies for schools and colleges, articulated postsecondary credit for high school earners, and rigorous accountability systems;

• Reporting and monitoring priority credential attainment with reliable, verified data

As organizations, Education Strategy Group and ExcelinEd are committed to helping states and communities get this right. There is an economic and social imperative to do so. At Education Strategy Group, we recently released a series of tools and resources to catalyze work across the country and we are engaging directly with six states to strengthen their identification and validation processes. At ExcelinEd, we work with states to bring their data on credentials to the forefront of public reporting and accountability systems, develop policies that promote attainment of high-value credentials, and help families make more informed choices.

Everybody wins when students have multiple pathways that position them for success in college and career. But we know that simply increasing the number of students who earn any credential is at best short-sighted. The end goal of our education and training systems must provide a high likelihood of long-term success.

Let’s ensure credential attainment policies clearly signal the high-value credentialing pathways, so we can provide students with clear direction toward economic opportunity. Doing so will pay dividends for states, communities, and learners.

Kathleen Mathers is a principal at Education Strategy Group. Quentin Suffren is National Director of Policy for ExcelinEd.

Note: This piece was originally published in Education Next.