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Students and employers grapple with apples-to-oranges comparisons

Alternative credentials are becoming more popular than ever, but students may not be able to tell legitimate programs from less valuable ones, Anne Kim reports for Washington Monthly

Workers are increasingly acquiring professional credentialssuch as certificates, certifications, and badgeseither in addition to or in place of traditional college degrees. These alternative credentials are available in a range of fields, from welding to pet grooming. They are offered by more than 4,000 organizations—including higher education institutions—according to the nonprofit Workcred. Numerous employers also require that workers have some sort of certification.

"It streamlines the process for hiring managers," says Steven Ostrowski, a spokesperson for CompTIA, an IT industry trade association. "It signifies that an individual has the skills they say they have."

However, most industries lack a standard for evaluating credentials. For one thing, it's difficult to compare one credential to another. And not all credentials are created equal. Research from Workcred shows that the vast majority of groups that issue credentials declare their own market value and quality, not third parties.

"With all these credentials popping up, it's extremely hard for both students and employers to know what they mean," says Steve Crawford, a research professor at George Washington University's Institute of Public Policy. 

Crawford, with support from the Lumina Foundation, hopes to change this with the Credential Transparency Initiative. The project brings workers and employers together to assess the credentials in a given field and compare them fairly. As part of the initiative, an online credential registry is being developed to provide information regarding:

  • Credentials students can earn;
  • Information about organizations offering certain credentials;
  • Any third-party accreditation;
  • Requirements; and
  • Outcomes.

Crawford says the registry will offer "apples to apples" comparisons of different credentials, allowing students to make more informed decisions and helping employers better evaluate workers' abilities. More than 60 credentialing organizations are currently participating in the project (Kim, Washington Monthly, 9/26). 

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