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When funders call for a map of credential transparency initiatives, we should pay attention

The ever-shifting landscape of education and work has raised the stakes higher than ever for students to choose wisely when considering education and training programs. With hundreds of thousands of credentials available in the U.S. alone, and with little data readily available about most of them, today’s credential marketplace feels confusing and chaotic to job seekers, employers, and policymakers alike.

While many initiatives are working to organize and clarify this key piece of the nation’s economy, coordination among the efforts has been difficult to track. Seeking to remedy this, more than 30 funders joined a discussion last fall hosted by JPMorgan Chase & Co., Lumina Foundation, and Schmidt Futures. Attendees considered five key questions about the credential marketplace:

  1. Could we use the recently developed common language for credentialing, the Credential Transparency Description Language (CTDL) as a national standard?
  2. What are ways to engage all our grantees in credential transparency?
  3. How can we accelerate the use of data and data tools to better connect our education and work systems?
  4. Should we fund credentialing transparency initiatives through alliances rather than singly?
  5. Which of the more than 500,000 credential programs in the U.S. produce credentials of real value—and how can we advance our understanding of credentials of value?

By day’s end, two things were clear: a coordinated effort is needed to bring transparency to the nation’s credentials, and we haven’t a moment to lose.

In order to understand the full scope of current efforts, the group began work on a map featuring several initiatives, including Credential Engine, the T3 Innovation Network, the Jobs Data Exchange, National Student Clearinghouse’s work on return on investment for various types of credentials, Skillful, the new Business Roundtable site-based work to build talent needed by employers in key industry sectors, and others. In addition to describing the work of each initiative, this document also set out to identify the key players, list mileposts they seek to reach, and establish projected timelines. By bringing transparency to the projects already at play, the group felt a mapping document would enable future conversations about what efforts are missing and what actions funders might take to accelerate the work.

Accelerating these collaborative efforts will be key to transforming the credential landscape into a transparent marketplace. As Lumina President Jamie Merisotis noted: “The vision around credential transparency and a common schema has been coalescing over the last several years. We need a credential marketplace that is transparent, searchable, and comprehensive—one that provides detailed information to jobseekers, employers, and policymakers about specific credentials—what skills and competencies they signal, their value in the labor market, and their linkages to other credentials and career paths. To date, philanthropy has played a key role in advocating for and supporting this vision. The thinking is, we might collaborate to double-down on efforts to turn this vision into reality faster.”

A spokesperson for Walmart, another funder, noted: “We hope mapping the work underway in the credential transparency area will encourage more collaborative approaches, both by funders and those carrying out the work. Thinking collectively may help us accelerate this work over the next few years,” said Gayatri Agnew, senior director for Walmart Giving.

“Thinking collectively about how best to accelerate this work might get us to ‘tipping point’ faster in several areas of effort in the next few years,” added Courtney Brown, vice president of strategic impact at Lumina Foundation, kicking off a conversation about which initiatives would need to be strategically scaled to move the work forward.

The group focused on several compelling “what if” possibilities: What if we could get a common credential transparency language used widely as the standard for describing all credentials within the next few years? What if we could get a couple of hundred-thousand credentials into the web-based, open-platform Credential Registry? What if we could get several “apps” in use for key stakeholder groups that use the credential data we hope will increasingly be available? And what if consumers could look at a wide range of credentials to see if they meet employer needs, while employers can look at credentials to see what they mean and use this information to meet their employment needs? Would addressing these needs bring disruptive innovation to credentialing, get us to tipping point faster? Groups like Credential Engine are working to find out.

Jennie Sparandara, head of Workforce Initiatives at JPMorgan Chase, elaborated on the many questions facing her organization around credential transparency. “This initiative is an extension of investments we’ve made over the last five years to build more data-driven education and job-training systems in order to promote greater economic mobility,” she said. “We’re looking forward to collaborating with other funders to take existing credential transparency efforts to the next level and clearly answer questions for how we’re supporting jobseekers and employers to make better matches. We’re also excited about the potential to identify opportunities to test new ideas in this space, and push innovation in the field.”

Technological advancements are a critical part of these developments. “How can we bring tech to bear to do something that makes a difference?” asked Jordan Blashek, manager at Schmidt Futures. “This is both a human and systems problem—getting people to agree on standards, adopt platforms, and develop valuable use cases. In a sense, the technology is the easiest part to develop. We want to partner with other funders who can help move the vision forward through a coalition to address the systems challenges,” he explained

Beth Cobert underscored key questions from the Markle Foundation: “At Markle, we approach credentialing from the end-users’ point of view. What will enable workers to develop informed career paths? What will enable employers to recognize the skilled people they need? What will enable educators to maintain the relevance and value of their offerings? And what will enable policymakers to steer toward a skills-based labor market? Today, we are confronted with a fragmentation of new and old credentials, kept in isolated silos. This doesn’t serve anyone well. We are excited to see organizations like the National Student Clearinghouse and industry certification bodies coming together to create more user-friendly ways of credentialing that can serve all these groups better and inform their decision-making.”

After reflecting on these questions and identifying the key initiatives that are working to develop and leverage credential transparency, the first-ever map of 27 collaborative credential transparency initiatives is now available. We know this document will only grow as we continue the challenging, but necessary, work to reimagine the credential marketplace. We hope that sharing the new mapping resources will be a good first step toward greater transparency. We also hope to inform investments and determine whether it’s preferable to act alone or leverage investments through alliances, which may be the best way to push the envelope farther and faster to influence systemic changes in the credentialing marketplace.

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