Certificates. Licenses. Microcredentials. Nanocredentials. Digital badges.

The array of options for postsecondary education and training has exploded over the last several decades, and interest is still growing: According to Strada Public Viewpoint research, 62 percent of Americans would prefer skills training or another nondegree option if they enrolled in a program within the next six months. In the 1950s, 5 percent of American workers held some type of licensure or certification; today, 30 percent do.

Yet despite the soaring interest, assessing their value — especially whether they can help individuals emerge from the pandemic to better opportunities — continues to be a challenge. “While the interest is high and growing,” Strada Education Network Director of Research Andrew Hanson said, “there continue to be questions about the quality and the value of these nondegree options.”

Strada research released Wednesday found that 2 in 5 Americans hold a nondegree credential, and that they are especially valuable when combined with a college degree, particularly  an associate degree. Sixty-nine percent of nondegree credential holders with an associate degree report their education was worth the cost, compared to only 48 percent of individuals with an associate degree who do not have a nondegree credential.

In a webinar Wednesday focused on the findings, Hanson joined Holly Zanville, a research professor and co-director of Program on Skills, Credentials, and Workforce Policy for George Washington University, and Stella A. Perez, former CEO of Santa Cruz County Provisional Community College District, to discuss what the findings say about the value of nondegree credentials.

Among their insights:

  • Adding credentials to a bachelor’s or associate degree might be a norm of the future. Zanville said she believes such combinations could be “very, very powerful in many industry sectors.”In the Public Viewpoint data, 70 percent of those who had both an associate degree and a nondegree credential said their education made them an attractive job candidate, compared to 43 percent of associate degree holders without a nondegree credential.

    “I predict that we’re going to see more of these combos and that we’re going to need good data to understand how the world is really working,” she said.

  • The timeline for completing nondegree credentials is less rigid and is changing the landscape of postsecondary education.Students increasingly are graduating from high school with completed credentials, and many are seeking additional credentials throughout their work lives. Perez said nondegree credentials can help students build long-term relationships with an education provider where they can return for additional education.

    “They come back to us because we’re their learning provider in the community, in the region. And they come back for a diploma or a degree,” Perez said. “We want that to happen, and businesses and industries look to us for that. It becomes not just a one-time one-off. That’s really important for us, and that’s what builds that lifelong learner.”

  • For guidance on how to effectively deploy and stack nondegree credentials, education providers, policymakers, and employers might need to look beyond the United States.“Many other nations are ahead of us, and we don’t seem to know that here,” Zanville said, citing countries such as Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Scotland and the Netherlands as leaders.
  • In the absence of an existing system from education providers, employers are starting to do the work of standardizing credentials and making them transferable.“They’re starting to act like a mini higher ed system, and with that comes responsibility, and you could maybe say some accountability,” Zanville said. “There’s some interesting work behind the scenes on what that could look like going forward.”

    Hanson called assessing the quality of nondegree credentials “a huge, huge challenge.”

    “A lot of times we have these legacy systems that weren’t necessarily well designed that are leading to the current dynamic, and it’s just a tough nut to crack,” he said. “But it’s a conversation that we have to have because the world is changing, and our systems aren’t keeping up for how to think about the topics we’ve talked about today. We really need to do it if we’re going to create a system that’s fair and serves learners equitably.”