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The emerging future of higher ed credentials

Most students attend college to earn a degree—a respected credential that informs the world and the workplace that they have specific knowledge and skills, and the maturity and intellect to prove it.

“Issuing and maintaining credentials is central to American higher education. Nobody can really compete with us on this. That’s our crown jewel, in a sense,” says education and technology futurist Bryan Alexander.

Beyond the traditional credit hour, students acquire knowledge from certified MOOCs and a range of other new sources, many of which are recognized with microcredentials such as digital badges. Yet the likelihood of a college or university accepting these learning experiences in exchange for formal credits is very low.

Sidebar: The State of Credentialing report by the Lumina Foundation

That is starting to change.

There are efforts underway to position colleges and universities to recognize “prior learning” in ways that go beyond today’s standard approaches.

While many institutions award some form of credit by assessing prior learning for decades, the amount of credits earned this way is generally limited—typically equivalent to just a few courses. Meanwhile, more students enter programs with a body of knowledge that’s worth recognition with formal credit.

Sidebar: Automating credentials recognition and exchange with Blockchain

A path to more flexible credit

One of the more significant shifts away from traditional seat-time requirements is competency-based education, which favors learning outcomes over the long-entrenched “Carnegie Unit.” Today, all regional accrediting bodies in the U.S. have a model for schools implementing competency-based programs.

While competency is a major departure from traditional credentialing, it still offers students a path to complete courses offered by a specific institution. It is not typically a means of awarding credit for knowledge credentialed previously at a smaller level, such as by a digital badge.

So, how do we get to the next level, where schools can recognize and accept for-credit microcredentials and learning experiences?

The Lumina Foundation has been pursuing this goal through the Connecting Credentials effort, which launched in 2015 ( This framework laid the foundation for defining competencies in structured sets leading to microcredentials that could be recognized on a wide scale.

(Learn how the foundation updated this work in the online version of this article.)

Moving credentialing forward

Joseph Moreau, vice chancellor of technology for the Foothills-DeAnza Community College district in California, is also an executive sponsor of the California Community Colleges Online Education Initiative.

This initiative is developing an “online course exchange” to help students locate courses that aren’t available on their home campuses. These courses would be interchangeable among institutions and guaranteed to transfer.

The course exchange was launched by six California Community Colleges system schools, with 18 more institutions scheduled to join soon. The goal is for all institutions in the system to participate.

On a grander scale, California Gov. Jerry Brown has asked the initiative to create a new, online school focused on workforce development. Defining and consolidating competencies in a certifiable format that validates skills can lead to a database that employers can search when seeking to fill jobs, and much more.

 Kelly Walsh is CIO of The College of Westchester in New York.

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