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#AskExcelinEd: How do states and schools determine what is a high-quality, industry-recognized credential?

• Lowell Matthews

Over the past few weeks, our Innovation policy team has been answering questions they’ve received about our Innovation policies. This week, we’re featuring the last question in this series, pertaining to our College and Career Pathways policy. We still invite you to send in your questions or Tweet us at @ExcelinEd. And don’t forget to share this important information with education partners, stakeholders and others who would like to know more!



How do states and schools determine what is a high-quality, industry-recognized credential?


One question ExcelinEd frequently receives when discussing industry recognized credential opportunities is: How do you determine which credentials are high quality?

Unfortunately, there isn’t an easy answer. With the advent of the skills gap—the gap between student preparation through education and the needs of our employers—there has been a significant increase in the number of certifications or certificates out in the market. However, there is a base set of criteria states can use to ensure their students and job applicants have access to the skills that are in demand.


Key Attributes of High-quality, Industry-recognized Credentials

At ExcelinEd, we have found the highest quality industry-recognized credentials share some key attributes.

  • Labor market demand—A student or job applicant is best served when the learned skills are tied to in-demand needs. Labor market data should inform a state and its school systems on the skills and credentials that their employers need and the type of programs that should be offered. And states can help school systems emphasize credential and skill acquisition by rewarding schools/programs with additional funding per student when a student earns a qualifying industry credential.
  • Third party verification—We live in an era of skepticism, and that distrust extends to our employers. They often do not believe the school district or state certificate that indicates a student or job applicant has acquired certain skills. However, they do trust their national, industry associations and other employers. If a student or job applicant earns a credential that is verified by industry or another employer, that often has greater weight in employment, hiring or promotion decisions.
  • Portability—Students obtain the broadest opportunities to find career success when they earn credentials that don’t end at the county or state line. For example, CompTia A+ is a credential recognized the world over. A student or job applicant can explore jobs with a CompTia A+ or Network + without ending the job search because the job, although only 10 miles away, is in another state. Similarly, high-quality, industry credentials retain their value across old-world boundaries.
  • Postsecondary connection—The global economy is ever changing. And the skills that individuals need to navigate the world of work and enjoy career success is also changing just as rapidly. Industry-recognized credentials that are linked to postsecondary credentials, also known as stackable credentials, give students and job applicants the broadest opportunities to augment their skills. Some employers require a postsecondary credential or a professional certification to earn a job. High-quality, industry credentials are authentic pathways for students and job applicants to earn skills that matter to today’s jobs and jobs that may not yet exist.
  • Ongoing career advancement—High-quality, industry-recognized credentials set students and job applicants apart. These credentials “stack” or build on each other to allow individuals to upgrade their skills and value to employers. The value to these individuals is often reflected in higher wages, better promotional opportunities and a better chance of finding employment. In other words, high-quality credentials should give individuals an opportunity to earn a living wage or higher. A credential that leads to a position with wages near the poverty lines may hinder more than help an individual find a pathway to greater career success.


Our Recommendation

To be sure, it can be daunting to identify the credentials, among a list of hundreds, that hold real currency in the global economy. Fortunately, a state’s employers and industry associations can help here. When states tackle the alignment of industry needs with education, it is critically important to have employer engagement. This means much more than a seat at the table; employers need to have an active role in identifying the needs of the state, regions and local communities. Often, that role can come through the state’s employer-majority Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act board and its regional workforce boards. Sometimes a state will use or create special regional employer centers or hubs to vet industry need. Regardless of the mechanism, employers need to be actively engaged in determining need and the type of authenticated skill-sets that are trusted by employers to verify that a student or job applicant possesses the skills in demand.

Now, does that mean every credential that doesn’t meet the above list is not worthy of consideration by a state or school system? Not necessarily. For example, there are emerging industries and career clusters where employer and industry authentication is still missing. Nonetheless, states and school systems can use these key criteria as an initial screener for most credentials to determine high-quality industry credentials in concert with their industries and employers. After all, high-quality industry credentials give a state’s students and job applicants a head start for future career success.

On the Radar for Next Week:
#AskExcelinEd: National Summit on Education Reform Edition
Stay tuned for a Q&A Session with some of our moderators & panelists!


Additional Resources:

Previous posts in our #AskExcelinEd series on Innovation policies:

Previous posts in our #AskExcelinEd series on ESSA State Plans:

About the author

Lowell Matthews

Lowell is the Director of College and Career Pathways for ExcelinEd. He previously served as Staff Director for the Florida Legislature’s Senate Committees on Education Pre-K-12 and Higher Education, where he helped create Florida’s industry certification incentive to create a nexus between education and the workforce. Lowell is a graduate of the University of Michigan and Vanderbilt University Law School. He also served in the U.S. Army. He lives in Rochester, MN with his wife and two kids.