Christopher M. Mullin, Strategy Director for Data and Measurement, Lumina Foundation

Christopher Mullin, Ph.D., is strategy director of data and measurement for Lumina Foundation. Previously, he served as director of Strong Start to Finish at Education Commission of the States, executive vice chancellor of the Florida College System, the assistant vice chancellor for policy and research at the State University System of Florida, Board of Governors, the program director for policy analysis of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), and a postdoctoral fellow at the Illinois Education Research Council. This article was informed by the author’s publication Aligning certificates, diplomas, degrees, and emerging forms of credentials: Macro, micro, and maintenance credentials.


Like a pot of spaghetti, credentials that prove what Americans have learned and can do are a tangled mess. This leaves more than a bad taste—it costs us time and money and hinders our ability to use them to enhance our jobs and lives.

In short, it’s credential chaos. That’s where things stand now, with 60,000 education and training providers spending $2 trillion to offer more than 1 million credentials for adults to earn after high school. The opportunities for learning are terrific, with a huge range of badges, credits, certificates, and certifications. But it’s a maze and a guessing game for people trying to find the right choice for both quality learning and results.

Adding to the muddle, colleges and companies award credentials outside those collected by the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, or IPEDS. Without a central database keeping track, credentials further confuse employers, policymakers, and students trying to sharpen their knowledge and skills.

That’s a problem because what matters most is whether credentials improve people’s lives. For many, short-term credentials offer a place to start or a fresh path to college. For others, they deliver longer-lasting benefits. In the U.S., 7.8 percent of adults have short-term credentials that boost their pay by at least 10 to 15 percent; sometimes, the wage increases are much higher.

However, early this year, 30 states, including the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico, saw declines in the share of residents having industry certifications and college certificates with significant wage premiums. This unusual decline in short-term credentials, surfacing in Lumina Foundation’s update of A Stronger Nation, highlights the importance of paying close attention to credentials’ labor market payoff.

Digging deep

The National Postsecondary Education Cooperative set out to make sense of this chaos—and they asked for my help. Why me? Well, I have extensive experience developing, managing, and informing state and federal data systems. And, in my role at Lumina Foundation, I help others understand credentials.

So, after months of digging deep into the history of data collection, reading data collection forms, finding surveys of federal agencies, reading reports, and talking to experts, I learned a lot. I learned how far things have come—to today’s upskilling microcredentials— since the turn of the 20th century when the associate degree was the first “chunking” of the bachelor’s degree into smaller parts.

And I learned what it would take to create order in the credential marketplace. I put all my findings into a 57-page paper, “Aligning Certificates, Diplomas, Degrees, and Emerging Forms of Credentials: Macro, Micro, and Maintenance Credentials,” and made six recommendations.

Chop and organize

In a nutshell, here’s what I suggest: Agreeing with the trend to chop learning into smaller parts, we need to organize it into pieces, consistently use those labels to ensure recognized, quality learning, and create a system that evolves with future advances and leverages all we’ve learned over the past 150 years.

It starts with a simplified credential organization. Because we know that all learning counts, let’s categorize all credentials into these three buckets:

  • Macrocredentials are degrees and certificates that show the completion of a program of study of sufficient depth and duration.
  • Microcredentials include short-term learning and training, resulting in certificates, badges, and continuing education credits.
  • Maintenance credentials, such as computer skills, teaching certificates, or a medical license, are time-limited or must be renewed. Licenses can require a combination of academics, certifications, assessments, apprenticeships, and work experience.

A simple, organized framework like this results in credentials that we all understand. To make it work, we’ll need to collaborate on a common vocabulary to use the same terms as we support learner goals and employer needs. This will help ensure that every credential is easily recognized for its value.

We also need to reinvent IPEDS as an all-encompassing data-collection resource. Over the years, this federal data system has become viewed as only for colleges receiving student aid. NCES should conduct a legal review to reinforce the role of IPEDS as more than a federal student aid database, allowing it to greatly expand its collection of credentials.

Finally, to connect college and training efforts, NCES should partner with federal agencies and departments funding apprenticeships, workforce training, and career and technical education. Today, federally funded workforce programs aren’t required to give credentials when students complete a program. That’s a major flaw that we need to fix.

Microcredentials in the mix

As people try to learn new skills to stay competitive in the marketplace, faster, cheaper credits called microcredentials are increasingly popular. Any college, training site, library, community group, or event can award these for learning activities.

I’ll share a few personal examples. I took an online course that was 24 hours long, required assignments to be completed, and was given a pass-fail grade. I received a course-completion certificate. In another case, I watched a video tutorial on how to use a web-based tool that was just shy of four minutes long, and I was given a digital badge. In a third case, I earned professional development credits focused on how different colored markers could help students deconstruct text passages.

These credits can be easily collected and shared on digital platforms, throwing microcredentials into the mix as opportunities to learn—but also adding confusion for learners and employers sifting through the choices.

Ensuring real rewards

Clearly, we’ve come a long way since 1875, when the U.S. Commissioner of Education suggested the bachelor’s degree as the foundation for advanced degrees. A diploma has long meant personal accomplishment and distinction. From degrees to microcredentials, each chance to learn and earn holds the potential for a lifetime of rewards.

Now, it’s up to us—with help from policymakers, educators, employers, and partners—to cut through the confusion and create an organized framework with easily understood options, valuable programs, and concrete results. My research and recommendations are a starting point as we detangle that messy pot of credentials for today’s learners and generations to come.

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