Credentials – Understand the Problems. Identify the Opportunities. Create the Solutions.

If you want to read the most thoroughly researched book about higher ed credentials and the current and future issues involving them, you should read Paul Gaston’s and Michelle Van Noy’s book, Credentials. Paul and Michelle have extensive academic backgrounds including learning outcomes, curriculum mapping, and the connection between workforce development and education. From my perspective, their academic experiences are extremely helpful and relevant to the pending transformation of traditional higher education. Their book includes many references that are useful for anyone pursuing a greater understanding of the credentials issues.

Credentials is organized in three parts: Part 1 – The Promise and the Problem, Part 2 – Degrees of Difference, and Part 3 – Implications for Action. The Promise and the Problem attempts to answer the fundamental question, “What is a credential?” Degrees of Difference provides historical perspectives on associates’ degrees, bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees, and doctoral degrees as well as the most popular forms of non-degree credentials (NDCs). Implications for Action addresses quality and equity in the credentials marketplace as well as academic leadership at a critical time for higher ed.

Part 1 – The Promise and the Problem opens with a chapter titled The Purposes of Credentials. Gaston and Van Noy note that credentials rest on two simple assumptions: they are descriptive, and they are truthful. As a result, they “enable those evaluating a recipient to assess with some assurance of reliability the applicant’s aptitudes, experience, and capacity for growth.” They discuss differing perspectives on the roles of credentials, namely as vouchers for skills, as signals and screens for competency, as sources of status and power, and as creators of social roles. Five takeaways for college administrators and faculty to consider are:

  • Clarifying alignments between the credentials their institution awards and any requirements for licensure that recipients may have to address.
  • Offering diploma “supplements” that clarify the significance of course and credit information provided in the transcript or requiring students to maintain an online learning portfolio that documents both curricular ad co-curricular experience.
  • Consulting with principal employers to determine what information about graduates they would find most useful and in what form they would prefer to receive it.
  • Enabling students to understand, to appreciate, and to communicate effectively both the tangible and intangible elements of their college experience.
  • Enabling students seeking employment to understand how different organizations approach the hiring process in different ways so that they may ask appropriate questions and respond to employer expectations and enabling students seeking acceptance by other academic institutions to meet the requirements of differing application processes.

The next two chapters in Part 1 are titled The Promise of Abundance and The Problems of Proliferation. In The Promise of Abundance, Gaston and Van Noy write that we must look beyond the huge increase in the sheer number of credentials and recognize that:

  • There are many more kinds of credentials.
  • There are many more credential sequences.
  • There are many more providers and kinds of providers.
  • There are many more approaches to delivering programs.

They note that competitive institutions will respond strategically to these layers of complexity. They also write that the credentials environment will continue to evolve. Growth in demand for nondegree credentials is likely to continue. As new credential providers continue to emerge, others will continue to disappear through closure or consolidation. In the near term, what is already an “inscrutable credentials environment” will probably become more indecipherable.

In The Problems of Proliferation, Gaston and Van Noy open with a statement that of the nearly one million unique credentials tracked by Credential Engine as of February 2021, approximately 920,000 are postsecondary credentials divided between postsecondary institutions (degrees and certificates – 359,713), MOOCs (course completion certificates – 9,390), and Nonacademic providers (badges, course completion certificates, licenses, certifications, apprenticeships – 549,712). Because of the sheer number of credentials, even seasoned observers have a tough time deciphering the right pathways. Institutions should commit to collaboration with employers. Administrators, faculty members, and academic advisors should work together:

  • To make certain that all credentials offered by the institution are clearly described in terms of the educational outcomes students are meant to achieve and that all credentials are clearly described according to widely understood nomenclature;
  • To remain aware not only of “new credentials” but also of credentials that are being introduced in response to “new disciplines”; and
  • To continue refining the delivery and assessment of online learning.

Part 2 – Degrees of Difference provides a detailed review of the various categories of degrees (associates, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral) as well as the most popular non-degree credentials (certificates, certifications and licenses, badges, and apprenticeships). Each of these comprise a separate chapter in the section. As usual, Gaston’s and Van Noy’s coverage is thorough. Rather than summarize each of the chapters, I’ll provide a list of a few of the highlighted points that they make.

  • There remains an understanding that the degree ladder, from associate to doctoral degrees, should attest to incremental growth in an individual’s knowledge and competencies.
  • The market share of certificates has increased from 21% to 23% since 2011-2012.
  • For the most recent academic year, there were awarded:
    • 954,738 certificates
    • 1,011,487 associate degrees
    • 1,980,644 bachelor’s degrees
    • 820,102 master’s degrees
    • 184,074 doctoral degrees
  • Only 10% of U.S. individuals hold an associate degree vs. 33% who hold a bachelor’s
  • While 80% of community college students indicate they intend to attain a bachelor’s degree, only 25% eventually transfer to a four-year institution.
  • Some applied associate degrees may offer greater immediate awards than some liberal arts bachelor’s degrees.
  • Four-year colleges should embrace and increase the number of transfer credit agreements with community colleges.
  • The bachelor’s degree remains the most widely sought and most readily recognized award among postsecondary credentials.
  • Over time, the bachelor’s degree has become less reliable as an assurance of career readiness.
  • Employers see skills gaps in key areas where college students don’t believe gaps exist.
  • The taxonomy of academic majors that broadened significantly over the past 100 years can no longer keep pace with the churn of knowledge needed to compete in nearly every profession.
  • In person instruction should become as focused as online learning on assessing accomplishment relative to explicit learning goals.
  • Master’s degrees have had an identity crisis since they may be:
    • Awarded as an interim credential to a graduate student proceeding to a doctoral program.
    • Awarded as a terminal degree to a graduate student not proceeding to a doctoral program.
    • A respected qualification for professional practice in certain fields.
    • Providing those already employed a qualification entitling them to promotion.
  • The increase in the award of graduate certificates to individuals in the U.S. from 2007-2012 outpaced the award of master’s degrees sixfold.
  • In Europe where the three-year baccalaureate is standard, more than 50% of graduates proceed to a master’s degree.
  • The most recent estimate for non-degree credentials (NDCs) awarded in a single year is 3.7 million in 2020.
  • The characteristics of NDCs align with the educational priorities of many. Nearly all are occupationally focused.
  • Of the 58% of the workforce holding some postsecondary credential, 33% earned NDCs
  • There may be more than 40,000 different NDCs.
  • Students seeking to apply NDCs to credit bearing programs face an uphill climb.
  • The principal drawback of badges is inconsistent quality assurance.
  • Colleges that seek the best for their students should explore expanding their students’ access to apprenticeships.

Part 3 – Implications for Action summarizes the authors’ findings and is organized in two chapters. The first chapter, Quality and Equity in the Credentials Marketplace, cites growing concerns about quality in higher education fueled by employer dissatisfaction with new employees, increases in postsecondary costs, and breakdowns in accountability. They also discuss inequities created by economic barriers, discriminatory testing, unequal access to technology, and deep variances in the quality of secondary school systems. They discuss the Quality Credentials Task Force, a group of college presidents, association heads, accreditors, etc., that was convened by the Lumina Foundation in 2018. The task force’s final report, Unlocking the Nation’s Potential: A Model to Advance Quality and Equity in Education Beyond High School, asserted one of the group’s premises that “no distinction should be made between quality and equity.” Gaston and Van Noy write that that premise is the first axiom of two that they advance. The second axiom is “the most direct and effective means by which an institution may pursue this single multifaceted priority is through a focus on credentials – those they offer and those they should be offering.” They proceed to advance institutional priorities for action as well as state and national priorities for action.

In the final chapter in Part 3, Academic Leadership at a Critical Time, Gaston and Van Noy write that there is no lack of initiatives in the credentials environment. They cite a March 2019 survey, the “Learn and Work Ecosystem Guide”, that identifies 36 initiatives underway through agencies and associations. Pictured below is a schematic overview of the ecosystem. It speaks for itself given the granularity of the graphic. I suggest taking the time to review it.

Gaston and Van Noy conclude with a list of 12 priorities for institutional leaders. These are:

  1. Determine which trends so far as credentials are concerned create opportunities appropriate to the institution and its students and seek a realistic and data-driven approach to realize those opportunities.
  2. While attending to the priorities to ensure the continued viability of your institution and the value for students of its existing credentials, give some attention to priorities that bear on the transparency, usefulness, and competitiveness of the credentials that are offered – and of those that should be.
  3. Seek a clearer understanding of how well the credentials awarded by the institution are “working” for the students who earn them.
  4. Acknowledge that the distribution of credentials awarded by category may continue to shift in favor of those that can be completed in less time and at less expense.
  5. Community college administrators, faculty members, and academic advisors should consider how the associate degree might more effectively link to (and perhaps incorporate) nondegree credentials (NDCs).
  6. Degrees that fail to document explicit learning outcomes may place graduates at a disadvantage relative to their peers presenting focused NDCs. Assessment of effectiveness should support strategic reinvestment in programs closely aligned with student needs and labor market demands.
  7. For the master’s degree to offer students and the economy distinctive value, its merit as a terminal or transitional qualification must be made clear through the publication of explicit, rigorous, and easily assessed learning outcomes that set it apart from other credentials.
  8. Administrators, faculty members, and academic advisors at doctoral institutions face a dual challenge, that of protecting the value of a long-esteemed credential (the PhD) while responding to an increased demand within practitioner disciplines for doctoral education.
  9. Savvy administrators, faculty members, and academic advisors should embrace the dual nature of NDCs and expand the range of connectable options.
  10. Many apprenticeships combine academic preparation appropriate to an associate degree with hands-on instruction offered by master mentors. Administrators, faculty members, and academic advisors should consider not only the potential for their institutions in new “white-collar” apprenticeship programs, but also how the “spirit of apprenticeship” might be extended to reinvigorate disciplines and program in general.
  11. Administrators, faculty members, and academic advisors must continue working to fulfill their commitment to the synthesis of quality and equity.
  12. The future of higher education belongs to institutions and their leaders, faculty, and advisers who understand credentials and their contexts, who take seriously their shared responsibility for guiding students through an inchoate complex of opportunities, and who embrace the need for thoughtful, consultative, and evidence-based innovation.

Reviewing a book like Credentials is difficult when the subject matter is complex and evolving. I had to reread the book (some chapters more than twice) to feel comfortable citing the most applicable findings and conclusions. I have known Paul Gaston for more than a decade. He served as a consultant to our APUS deans and program leaders when we decided to implement the Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP) framework for all our degrees and certificates. He is one of the four original authors of the DQP and someone who I also interfaced with during my service as a member of the Advisory Board for the National Institute of Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA). Paul and Michelle have done a wonderful job of incorporating most of the relevant issues, findings, and initiatives related to the ever-expanding field of credentials. They have also explained it in a manner that anyone active in the leadership of higher education can understand even if they have not been involved with learning outcomes or credentialing initiatives. As institutions continue to evaluate ways in which they can maintain or expand their student enrollments by improving their relevancy and quality of credential offerings, they would be well-advised to read and keep a copy of Credentials on their nearby bookshelf.

Subjects of Interest


Higher Education

Independent Schools


Student Persistence