Believe it or not, there were more than 144 local time zones in the United States before 1883. This made it difficult for railroads to schedule and coordinate routes, resulting in train collisions. So, the country adopted standard time zones to end the confusion.

We’re in a similar situation now with the abundance of credential types adults can earn after high school. Public and private education and training providers now offer a wide range of badges, certificates, and certifications. As a result, it’s hard to understand the strength of our nation’s most valuable asset: its people.

Lumina Strategy Director Chris Mullin talks about his work in aligning certificates, diplomas, degrees, and emerging forms of credentials

So, the National Postsecondary Education Cooperative (NPEC) set out to make sense of this credential chaos—and they asked for my help.

Why me? Well, my unique and extensive experience developing, managing, and informing state and federal data systems through workgroups, leadership roles or prior writings. And, in my current role at Lumina Foundation, I’ve spent years striving to understand non-degree credentials.

After about four 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, let’s just say I learned a lot. I put my findings in a 57-page paper, “Aligning Certificates, Diplomas, Degrees, and Emerging Forms of Credentials: Macro, Micro, and Maintenance Credentials,” and made six recommendations from my in-depth research. I hope these recommendations create “a path forward, where the various types of credentials—certificates, degrees, diplomas, and emerging credentials—acknowledged and supported across federal agencies are aligned.”

These are my recommendations.

Recommendation one: Reinvent IPEDS as an all-encompassing data-collection resource.

NCES should conduct a legal review to reinforce the role of IPEDS as more than a federal student aid database, allowing it to expand its collection of credentials.

Why? In 1986, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES)—the organization over the one that tasked me with my credential research—created one system to integrate all its data collection efforts. The Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, or IPEDS, collects a range of data about institution of higher education, noncollegiate programs, and career and technical education. Over the years, IPEDS became viewed as only for colleges participating in federal student aid programs, limiting its ability to collect complete information about postsecondary education.

Recommendation two: Fix confusion with simplified credential organization.

Because we know that all learning counts, let’s categorize all credentials into three buckets: “macrocredentials,” microcredentials and maintenance credentials.

Why? Colleges and companies award a range of credentials outside of those collected or defined in IPEDS. The extensive volume and type awarded by colleges and non-college entities can confuse potential employers, policymakers, and students trying to augment their knowledge, skills, and abilities.

Here’s how I would define them:

  • “Macrocredentials” are degrees and certificates that reflect the completion of a program of study of sufficient depth and duration.
  • Microcredentials include short-term learning and training and include certificates, badges, and continuing education units as examples.
  • Maintenance credentials are ones someone must renew or are time-limited in their applicability. Examples include computer skills, teaching certificates, or a medical license.

Recommendation three: Let’s collaborate on research and standard language.

Create a cross-statistical agency workgroup to share research and develop common terminology for credentials. Inviting nongovernmental entities whenever possible would garner a better understanding and broader utilization.

Why? Federal agencies aren’t connected around credential naming conventions, further confusing the public. For example, we’ve heard people refer to certificates by several terms: undergraduate, postsecondary nondegree award, educational, vocational, occupational, and more. In addition, nongovernmental agencies have developed their own terminology rather than leveraging existing terms, exacerbating the confusion.

Recommendation four: We need a program characteristic data collection.

It’s time for NCES to work with partner federal agencies to create a program characteristic data collection like its institutional characteristic data collection. We have data on degree areas (for example, civil engineering), but we don’t know credit hours, whether the course is only in-person, or if there are limits to the number of enrolled students in the program.

Why? We’ve seen a fundamental shift from a focus on college to a focus on programs offered by colleges because of regulatory actions about program integrity, a greater emphasis on completion in addition to enrollment, and the need to show a return on investment in college due to rising consumer costs. Because of this change, the public is looking for answers about the characteristics of college and training programs, but this data collection does not exist.

Recommendation five: It’s time to update our noncredit education understanding.

NCES should redo its 1977/78 survey measuring noncredit activity to understand how noncredit has changed over time while adding a few questions relevant to current practice and new knowledge.

Why? Noncredit continuing education and training has existed on college campuses for decades. A national workgroup defined a standard way to measure it in the late 1960s, and surprisingly, three surveys conducted at colleges in the 1970s captured noncredit activity on campuses, yet, over the past 20 years NCES has convened experts to discuss how such a data collection survey could be developed.

Recommendation six: Connect the workers with the workforce.

To align the workforce our nation needs and the talent it has, NCES should serve as a consultant to federal governmental agencies and departments funding apprenticeships, workforce training, and career and technical education (CTE).

Why? I wrote last summer about how training programs aren’t required to give students a credential when they complete a program, further exacerbating the disconnect between workforce and talent. Federally funded workforce programs should be required to award a credential.

Innovation waits for no one.

Just as trains were the engines of industrialization in the 1800s, colleges and universities along with private industry move this nation forward.

And it’s time for these recommendations to create a simple organized framework—like time zones—that allow for each innovation in education and training program development to continue operating but ending with a credential we all understand.

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