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#AskExcelinEd: 5 types of credentials: What are they and what is their value?


• Quentin Suffren


U.S. high school students earn hundreds of thousands of credentials each year as part of state career and technical education (CTE) programs. Unfortunately, Credentials Matter confirmed the information and data on the effectiveness of these credentials is extremely limited in most states, if it even exists at all.

While there is a great deal of improvement needed in data collection, much can be learned from the nearly 800,000 earned credentials collected and analyzed by Credentials Matter. Some states have clear criteria and include workforce demand for identifying their promoted credentials. Other states include almost any measure of career-related knowledge regardless of whether they carry weight in the labor market.

Defining Credential Types

Credentials Matter identified five credential types based on how they interact with labor market demand using employer signaling, industry validation mechanisms and state regulation as filters. These five types provide the framework for analyzing alignment to determine how a state is preparing students for the workforce demand in their state.

  • License
    • Mandated by law for workers to gain permission to practice in specific occupations and must be renewed periodically.
    • Examples include Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) for truck drivers and Licensed Practical Nurse for nurses.
  • Certification
    • Signal an individual has acquired a set of abilities and, in some cases, allow them to perform a specific job.
    • Examples include Automotive Service Excellence for auto mechanics and CompTIA Network+ for computer network administrators.
  • Software
    • Demonstrate competence of a specific software.
    • Examples include Adobe Certified Expert for graphic designers and Microsoft Office Specialist for administrative assistants.
  • General Career Readiness
    • Measures foundational workplace skills including basic reading, math, financial and digital literacy, workplace safety and basic life support or first aid.
    • Examples include W!SE Financial Literacy Certification and Basic First Aid, which can be applied across virtually all occupations.
  • CTE Assessment
    • Measure the skill attainment of students who have completed a program course sequence or CTE pathway.
    • These assessments test the student’s mastery of state standards and are not necessarily aligned with or approved by an industry body or used in hiring or advancement decisions.

Determining Credential Value

Determining value for a credential based on labor market demand is not straightforward. Some credentials may be in high demand but in occupations that pay less than a living wage or that are projected to decline over time. Other credentials may show low labor market demand, but are still essential for career advancement.

Key Credential Type Findings

Credentials Matter provides a detailed breakdown of the top credentials earned and demanded for each of the five credential types nationally and by state. The following key findings barely scratch the surface.

  • License – There is an extreme oversupply of Licenses associated with low-wage occupations and undersupply of the Licenses associated with middle- and high-wage occupations.
  • Certification – While Certifications can open doors for entry-level workers or help seasoned workers advance their careers, the overall alignment of Certifications to employer demand is poor.
  • Software – The demand for Software credentials is overestimated because even though employers are seeking candidates proficient in productivity software, such as Microsoft Office, they do not require a credential to prove these abilities.
  • General Career Readiness – General Career Readiness credentials often do not lead to a clear or successful pathway in the workforce. Though the skills acquired may be valuable, these credentials should not be considered industry-recognized credentials in the way that they currently are in state CTE programs, ESSA accountability systems or credential incentive policies.
  • CTE Assessment – Virtually no CTE Assessments hold currency in the labor market. This is not to say that CTE Assessments are low quality or low value, but they should not be included as part of a state’s industry-recognized credential portfolio.

Building a Better Educational Path for Students

State programs should place more emphasis on the capstone credentials that are most demanded by employers and less emphasis on credentials that may signal specific underlying skill sets or competencies but do not provide students with an advantage in terms of employment, wages and career advancement.

Credentials Matter is a critical first step to understanding the current credentials landscape across the U.S. so stakeholders can build better career education systems for students. Learn more at CredentialsMatter.org.

Explore the Website

Visit CredentialsMatter.org to explore interactive maps and data tables and to learn more.

Read the Report

View the Credentials Matter report to examine the analysis’s approach, findings and recommendations.

About Credentials Matter

Credentials Matter is an ongoing research partnership between ExcelinEd and Burning Glass Technologies designed to shed light on the landscape of industry credential data collection and alignment across the country. The project provides insight into how industry credentials earned by high school students align with workforce demand in each state to inform education system improvements and state data collection practices. Visit ExcelinEd.org/CredentialsMatter for more information.


Credentials Matter was made possible by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors.

About the author


Quentin Suffren

Quentin@ExcelinEd.org

As Innovation Policy Managing Director, Quentin oversees Personalized Learning, College and Career Pathways and Course Access policies at ExcelinEd. Previously, Quentin served as executive director of the college, career, and military preparation at the Texas Education Agency. He also held leadership positions with Amplify Education, an education consulting and technology firm, TNTP, and The Learning Institute. Quentin began his career as a high school English teacher. He earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Memphis.