Credential Transparency: Essential for Education and Training Accountability

It’s ironic, but true: right now it’s easier to find rich, comparable, transparent data when shopping for cars, airline tickets, phones, washing machines—just about anything—than it is to find similar information across the breadth and depth all types of credentials available today. Try it. If you’re in the market for a new car, it’s relatively easy to get and compare information to help you choose between a Ford, Toyota, or Volkswagen, a sedan, SUV or minivan, and a gas, hybrid, or electric model.  

Now try doing the same type of search to discover and select the right credential and educational pathway to get a stable, well-paying career in IT that will let you pay for that car you just found.  Try to do a single search that includes coding bootcamps, apprenticeships, associates degrees, bachelors, masters, certifications, and badges: not yet fully possible.

Several key trends in education, training, and workforce development are merging toward each other, and change is on the horizon. There is an increased focus on attainment of high-quality credentials, and those defined as “recognized postsecondary credentials” in statute.   Public policy is shifting away from central control and sanctions-oriented oversight based on performance to greater emphasis on transparency and accessibility of data about opportunities and outcomes. And finally, policymakers, students, and employers are more focused on aligning education and training with work and career needs, as evidenced by a growth of work-based learning approaches, both as stand-alone policies and interwoven into other federal and state education and training systems.

All of these intend to put more control of our nation’s talent development policies and programs in the hands of students, workers, employers, and educators. In other words—to empower the marketplace and reduce the role of governments at all levels.

But for market-based policies and approaches to have the greatest chance of the best outcomes, and to be their most efficient and effective, there has to be a full and intentional commitment to open data and transparency. Without it, markets almost always skew toward the overwhelming benefit of those actors who own the data—in this case, institutions, providers, and systems—not students, workers, veterans, employers and the public.

But that’s changing. A number of states have been working to improve the transparency and accessibility of credential data, and have been critical proving grounds to demonstrate the value and effectiveness of a standardized framework to describe all credentials in the marketplace.  Indiana, for example, is quickly moving toward having all credentials in the state described and searchable through this common framework and a set of applications and resources. Eight other states—New Jersey, Ohio, Michigan, Kansas, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Maine and New Hampshire— are also working down that path, with many others interested and taking steps to follow.  

Similar efforts are underway in various sectors of the national economy.  A national retail and hospitality credentials initiative has been established, in partnership with the National Retail Federation and the National Restaurant Association, and plans are in the works for related initiatives in healthcare, IT, and manufacturing.  Various federal agencies are also taking action. The Department of Defense is leading an effort to adopt credential transparency within its own walls and is engaging other agencies to join their lead.

Credential Engine has been at the forefront of this work by developing the open-source framework—the Credential Transparency Description Language, or CTDL—that makes possible a common approach to describing all types and levels of credentials, from diplomas, badges, certificates and apprenticeships to licenses, certifications and degrees.  This Language—and the applications and tools that can be built on it—will make search, discovery, comparison, and selection of credentials easier and more accessible to everyone.

The Language includes the ability to describe each credential in detail, including its own content (such as competencies), its provider, accreditation status, quality assurance, assessments, costs, outcomes, market value, and other critical attributes. This will put more information than ever before into the hands of students, workers, employers, educators, and policymakers—information that is highly relevant to help all maximize their value in a competitive workforce.

Brick by brick, states, industries, and agencies are laying the groundwork for full, comprehensive credential transparency. The question that should be considered now is how this body of work can inform federal policy and what federal actions, if any, can help ensure that such data is always available to students, workers, employers, educators, and policymakers as an essential component of our nation’s education and training systems.

The new landscape of credentials holds tremendous potential.  But without comprehensive, open, and transparent data, our marketplace of credentials lacks the ability to fully deliver its greatest impact for the American economy. Recognition and adoption of the open-source Credential Transparency Description Language across postsecondary education and training policies and systems will yield the open data necessary for the marketplace to meet our emerging goals.

Scott Cheney is the executive director of Credential Engine.