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CAEL Pathways Blog

Incremental Credentials: Small Steps for Students, Giant Leaps for Adult Learning

Dr. Nan Travers is director at the Center for Leadership in Credentialing Learning at SUNY Empire State University. Recently, she was the guest speaker for Coffee With CAEL, a series of exclusive webinars for CAEL members. These events host thought leaders and practitioners who share their insights and foster discussion about issues important in adult learning.

An expert on credit for prior learning (CPL), Travers is also on the leadership team at Credential As You Go, where CAELs president, Earl Buford, and its vice president of research and impact, Becky Klein-Collins, serve on the advisory board. Credential As You Go is a national movement funded through the Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education (Grant R305T210063), and a Walmart grant. 

During her appearance, Travers reviewed recent research findings about incremental credentials. She advocated for eschewing all-or-nothing models of college-level learning recognition in favor of an unbundled approach that values diverse learning experiences and improves workforce and educational inclusion. Throughout, Travers highlighted CPL's value in bridging the two spheres and synthesizing diverse sources of learning. 

"Once we start to say that somebody has college-level learning in one place, and not in another place, I think we have to be very careful about how we define college-level learning and what is or is not acceptable toward credentials," said Travers. "When developing definitions, policies, and practices, I have to ask always, 'What's the purpose of creating the boundary? Who and what knowledge are you trying to keep out?'" These questions, said Travers, set the stage for honest conversations about the role of higher education and credentialing. 

Travers contextualized incremental credentials as an umbrella term for capturing all sources of knowledge and skills. They include learning acquired from the workplace, academic, and other experiences. For Travers, what they have in common is the potential to be ingredients for enriching a more inclusive learning system that doesn't leave people with unrecognized knowledge.

"We are really thinking about that learner-centered credentialing system, and how we can start to think about this from a learner perspective," she said. Rather than pitting academic against nonacademic learning, incremental credentials provide ways to seamlessly signal relevant competencies. This approach continually values college-level learning from all sources, from individual education and training experiences to the broader mosaics of knowledge they stack into, whether academic degrees or workforce certifications. 

CWC Credential As You Go 8.23

To that end, Credential As You Go's mission is "to facilitate the development of a nationally adopted incremental credentialing ecosystem that improves education and employment outcomes for all learners." Its vision also will be familiar to the CAEL community and all who embrace CPL: 

  • All learners are recognized for what they know and can do. 
  • Learning counts from multiple sources. 
  • The meaning of credentials understood by learners, employers, and educational institutions, policymakers. 
  • Credentials fit learner needs and inform career navigation, education-career planning, and job transitions.
  • Credentials used by employers in hiring and advancement and recognized within the postsecondary ecosystem as counting towards further learning.

These goals are oriented to learners from all walks of life, including those who pursue higher ed learning and those who have never enrolled. Citing disappointing retention and completion rates, Travers said that one sixth of U.S. adults over 25 have attended college without receiving a credential. Another two thirds have never been to college. That makes more than half of the country "invisible" in the eyes of a postsecondary paradigm that houses educational achievements exclusively within formal degrees.

Efforts to be more inclusive can suffer as a result, said Travers. Black and Latina/Latino adults, she noted, are overrepresented among those who have not attempted or completed college degrees. At the same time, degree attainment correlates directly with earnings and inversely with unemployment. "We have to start to think about how people are recognized for the skills and knowledge that they have," she said.

To advance such thinking, Credential As You Go's recent research, which spans 22 states, is scrutinizing credential programs to promulgate promising trends and best practices. While just under half of the incremental credentials it has analyzed are credit bearing, 13 percent combine credit and non-credit-learning. "That's where we see an integration of industry credentials and also credit for prior learning," said Travers. She said it is evidence that incremental credentials are breaking down the divide between what was learned inside and outside of institutions.

Travers also detailed a framework that Credential As You Go developed. She hopes the framework will help more educators and trainers parlay panoplies of postsecondary learning into credentials that formally capture and signal what individuals know and can do. The framework lays out six approaches, often used in combinations of two or more, that educators and trainers are using to develop and implement incremental credentials. 

CPL is embedded throughout the framework, perhaps most evidently in a component dubbed "Retro as You Go." Describing it as a small but growing movement, Travers said Retro as You Go is an approach to awarding credentials based on what learners know and can do, rather than requiring them to return to a degree program to obtain any formal recognition. 

In addition to supporting the development of incremental credentials, Credential As You Go research is assessing the learning outcomes they deliver. These KPIs include access, enrollment, persistence, completion, and what follows after completion. Travers shared several tactics study participants are employing to improve these outcomes. One university system created a user-friendly database that catalogs more than 500 microcredentials. To better align noncredit programs with occupations, a community college has matched their titles with the jobs learners can qualify for by completing them. Another community college has enlisted the support of industry partners to formalize credential completion as a mechanism to job promotion. 

Perhaps the most poignant example Travers shared came in response to a question from the audience about lost credits. While much of the discussion focused on better ways to recognize nontraditional sources of learning, college level learning can go unrecognized even when it is completed within a college classroom. Lost credits are a critical piece of thinking this [framework] through, said Travers. Many learners attend multiple institutions and accrue experiential learning in the workplace. Yet their learning is only recognized when it gets sealed into a credential, she said. To address this, some institutions are applying a CPL approach to help learners recapture lost credits. One scoured its curricula for applications of design thinking. It then contacted students who had completed such courses to offer them a credential in it.

Another question concerned resistance to CPL for noncredit courses. Travers said objections typically are motivated by two concerns: quality and workload. Addressing the former, she reminded attendees that faculty are responsible for the quality of curriculum. Involving them closely, she said, is helpful.

Regarding workload fears, Travers said trepidation falls on opposite sides of the issue, with some faculty fretting that CPL will be laborious while others are concerned it will take work away from them. Ensuring CPL is a manageable process, Travers said, is an institution-level responsibility. But to quell suspicions that CPL cannibalizes traditional academic programs, she pointed to CAELs research. "I think there's some really important messaging in there that students who engage in prior learning assessment tend to stick around, they take more credits, and they have higher completion rates," she said. "And the numbers in terms of that as a research study, you can't debate that we are looking at it 10 years later. So I think what's really important is that we start to do some myth busting." 

Travers invited anyone interested in learning more about Credential As You Go's work to visit credentialasyougo.org. The website offers webinars, professional development, newsletters, research findings, and other resources. Information about future CAEL events can be received by subscribing to CAEL updates. Membership information is available at cael.org.

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