Proudly, I work at Lumina Foundation. This means that I believe in and support the value proposition that all learning counts. That includes short-term credentials.

It means that my dinner conversations with my two kids – now teenagers – about the choices they make include a wide range of options from the military to degrees, to yes, even a short-term credential.

As a recent example, this summer I asked my daughter to help me replace every outlet in the house from the lovely almond-colored variety to a white one more aligned with our current Japandi aesthetic. I like engaging my kids in projects but also want to expose them to the tools of the trade – differentiating between a Phillips head and flat head screwdriver – while applying the concepts of circuits and breakers they learned from books. But mostly, I wonder, will this experience ignite a passion?

My friend owns an electrical contracting company and perhaps she could work for him one day, I think to myself.  As we worked, I mentioned to my daughter that she can get a short-term credential and start on a career path earlier, work anywhere she wants and be happy. But alas, while she enjoyed the experience, our bout with electricity did not ignite a spark. And so she returns to what she prefers, her honors chemistry coursework.

This reflection came to mind when I was asked a thoughtful question as part of an ice-breaker opening to a meeting: ‘When you think about the children in your life – your own or others in your extended family or in your community – what’s one outcome you want for them when they are adults?’

Here’s my answer: I want them to be part of a community of people with meaningful credentials. Yes, I know. I hear cries of “homer” or other such responses from people who might call my goal simplistic. But it’s far from simple.

When you pursue a credential after high school, it reflects your chosen path, a life with purpose, and an expertise that enhances you and your community. In my mind, education is like a palm tree with “core” learning happening in K-12 (the trunk), followed by specialized, post-high school learning (the palm fronds). I did not understand this as a teenager, but I do as an adult.  I see peers pursuing passions and it inspires me. The range of knowledge they share is fascinating – and it encourages me to keep learning and exploring, too.

No matter our positions in life, we are all working to address challenges with each other and within ourselves. And the process of learning embedded within a meaningful credential – whether it be Rococo art history or mechatronics – gives us the ability to identify and solve complex problems as we contribute our talents to a better world.

That’s my goal for my children, and yours, too. So the next time we are sitting at the dinner table and my son asks what I did today, I’ll tell him that I made investments to create the type of world that I want for you and your sister. Namely, one where people have the support they need to become an expert in whatever truly ignites their spark.

[Christopher Mullin, Ph.D., is strategy director of data and measurement for Lumina Foundation, an independent foundation that strives for racial equity as it helps all Americans learn beyond high school. Previously, he served as director of Strong Start to Finish at the Education Commission of the States and as executive vice chancellor of the Florida College System. He is a frequent speaker at conferences.]

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