More than one million secondary and postsecondary credentials are offered across the country, according to a new report released today by Credential Engine, a nonprofit dedicated to charting the credentialing landscape.

The fourth annual “Counting Credentials” report notes that there are now 1,076,358 unique credentials available across the country, up from 967,734 last year. The report also identifies more than 59,692 different credential providers. Yet there remains a dearth of centralized data on these education and workforce training options.

A credential provider “could be a traditional four-year institution, it could be a community college, it might be a state licensing board, it might be Google, or Cisco, or a boot camp,” Scott Cheney, CEO of Credential Engine, said. “The diversity of the marketplace is both a good thing and a challenge. It shows there’s a lot of innovation and there’s a lot of different ways to advance yourself, but we don’t have good information still about which ones are the best ways, and that’s what we really have to focus on … It’s easy to get lost in this chaos.”

The analyses in the report were conducted by the Center for Regional Economic Competitiveness, an organization that conducts research and provides advising and training to higher ed and workforce leaders and policy makers. The report includes credentials offered by four different kinds of providers: higher education institutions, high schools, nonacademic providers such as boot camps and apprenticeships, and massive open online course providers. The credentials are divided up into 18 different categories including degrees, microcredentials, various kinds of certificates and licenses, badges, and high school–alternative diplomas, among others.

Nonacademic providers, such as boot camps and apprenticeships, account for more than half of the credential options available nationwide, with online course-completion certificates and digital badges making up the bulk of their offerings. The number of credentials at higher education institutions, however, slipped since last year, from 359,713 offered in 2021 to 350,412 in 2022.

Shalin Jyotishi, senior analyst at New America, a Washington, D.C., think tank, said the many credential options offered by nonacademic providers aren’t a bad thing, as long as federal and state lawmakers make efforts to ensure they’re of high quality.

“Certification bodies, which can be nonprofit or for-profit, employers, nonprofit workforce providers, MOOCs, other entities can offer high-quality credentials of value that serve sort of a niche that traditional higher education institutions can’t fill or don’t want to fill or struggle to fill,” he said.

He also doesn’t see this development as bad news for higher education institutions but perhaps an opportunity for colleges and universities to partner with nonacademic providers. For example, he highlighted that Miami Dade College offers college credits to students who complete the Google data analytics certificate, offered through Coursera. He believes these partnerships can be a recruitment tool for colleges and universities at a time when enrollment in higher ed continues to decline and also give students pursuing noncredit credentials an “on-ramp” to degree programs, which still lead to the greatest earning gains later in life.

“It makes sense to create on-ramps into traditional higher ed from these nontraditional options,” he said. “That’s what I would point to as the most prominent selling point is this is a recruitment strategy to stem hemorrhaging enrollment.”

Cheney also noted that it’s likely easier to get into credentialing programs from nonacademic providers.

He expects to see digital badges and online course completions in particular continue to grow as institutions begin to offer more digital versions of their traditional credentials because of the “convergence of a lot of different forces.”

“You’re going to begin to see the market shift to become more digitized,” he said. “The pandemic I think certainly sped up the shift. But I also think it’s just … as technology has evolved, there’s just more capability of having digital learning and employment records. And as employers are signaling the need for better insight into the skills that employees and candidates have, we need to make sure that information is also made available in digital formats.”

He hopes the report signals to policy makers that the vast credentialing market is worthy of their care and attention.

The report should “give them a sense that the marketplace is much more complex and much larger than any one of them probably appreciates,” he said.

He also wants credential providers to “recognize the value of ensuring that what they provide is more transparent and the information about it is open and more easily accessible to the average user,” he said. “We need to do a better job of ensuring that we have quality and transparency about all of this. It’s really going to come back and be to the benefit of the economy and employers and the country as a whole if we can rightsize and better organize this portion of the economy.”

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