The coronavirus pandemic has taken a heavy toll on America's workforce, with 43 states clocking record unemployment rates in April. As the crisis plunges the nation into a recession, some experts warn it will also accelerate automation and require a massive reskilling of workers.
But navigating the credential marketplace and assessing programs' quality can be a tall order for prospective students, particularly those looking for something short of a two- or four-year degree. There are more than 730,000 credentials on offer in the U.S., including traditional degrees and alternative credentials, such as certificates and badges.
Although colleges that get federal funds are required to publish their student outcomes, many alternative education providers that offer nondegree options are not. New attempts to spur recovery from the coronavirus crisis stand to raise interest in the full range of programs, highlighting the need for states to better understand the scope and quality of the credentials that colleges and workforce training programs offer in their state.
The U.S. Department of Education, for example, plans to give out $127.5 million to expand short-term postsecondary programs and work-based learning opportunities through its Reimagining Workforce Preparation Grants. They are part of a $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief package. And this month, Congressional Democrats introduced the Relaunching America's Workforce Act, which would give $15 billion to the states to support workforce training and modernize job matching data infrastructure.
Still, oversight of the vast array of credentials on offer is limited and fragmented. That's why Credential Engine is partnering with six state policy organizations to encourage state lawmakers to keep better tabs on the credentials available within their borders.
The groups also hope to help U.S. workers find programs that can advance their careers, said Scott Cheney, executive director of the nonprofit, which aims to bring transparency to the credentials marketplace and houses a registry of available credentials in the U.S.
Some states "have recognized very quickly that having this data ... is going to be incredibly valuable in helping the millions of people that have been knocked out of work to find their way back," Cheney said.
Education Dive spoke with Cheney to learn more about the partnership's goals and how the coronavirus will impact states' plans to track credentials.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
EDUCATION DIVE: What are some of the biggest challenges in creating credential transparency at the state level?
CHENEY: It varies tremendously from state to state. In a state like Kansas, the board of regents has taken a strong lead in helping to publish a lot of comprehensive data across all the public two- and four-year institutions, so it's been a fairly straightforward process.
Other states that have different state data management and reporting models operate a little differently. We've been working with them to think through where there are existing repositories of data that they collect for oversight, reporting or quality assurance purposes — whatever it may be — that can be an initial source of data.
We go into every state willing to have customized approaches that meet their particular data structures, as well as their culture around data and any restrictions or opportunities that they have.
Does any state have standardized outcomes data for alternative credentials such as boot camps and MOOCs?
CHENEY: No state yet has a single repository of all credentials in their state. Washington state has a very, very comprehensive — not complete — listing of programs and credentials in what they call their Career Bridge data set. Programs have reported their data voluntarily to the state, which uses it for education and career guidance counseling tools.
A subset of those programs have opted to be on the state-eligible training provider list. (About 3,800 of 6,500 programs have done so, according to the state organization that runs Career Bridge.) That list is used to determine whether a program can receive federal funding for training (primarily through the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act). They have to agree to have labor market outcomes associated with their credential listing.
Alabama is working with us to set up a state-specific credential registry, but they haven't finished it yet. States are all moving in this direction, but they're all going at it a little bit differently.
Editor's note: The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act took effect in 2015 and gives grants to states to support employment and training services for adults.
How does the pandemic impact efforts to increase transparency of the credential marketplace?
CHENEY: It's varied by state. Some states have picked up steam and are moving even faster to get the data published. New Jersey is a great example. They are working hard to finish publishing their data to our registry and to build a decision-making tool, which will allow people to understand what credentials and competencies they have and what they need to complete to be eligible for a particular job. There may be multiple pathways that lead to a job, and the tool is going to help determine which of those paths might be best for them.
Other states want to be able to do this, but they've got bigger financial challenges right now. We are hopeful that if Congress passes another recovery or appropriations bill, they'll include some funding for states to help them publish data in the right formats that can be used in online pathway tools. There was money for states included in the Relaunching America's Workforce Act to support their efforts to publish this data.
Are there signs funding for credential transparency would gain traction?
CHENEY: If something were to move forward, it's anybody's guess what's in that package and whether some of the money would ride or not. But we're hopeful.
How do you envision that Credential Engine's work to create transparency in the credential marketplace could impact federal policy?
CHENEY: Certain pieces of policies were the natural precursor to our work. The focus in the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, and then in the Perkins Act, was on helping people get access to recognized postsecondary credentials. You want to make sure those are quality credentials that have value in the labor market. As states have been trying to implement those laws, they're thinking about the right ways to collect and track the necessary data and determine which credentials meet their standards for quality and value.
Our transparency work supports states' efforts to do that. I think you're going to see the requirement for open data be more common and frequent across states.
I suspect when (more details about) the (department's) Reimagining Workforce grants come out soon, you're going to see language about publishing data using open schema and linked data formats to support interoperable learning records. I think you're going to see that at the Department of Labor and with other federal funding streams associated with credentials and competencies and skills and employment.