Advancing State Progress towards Quality Assurance for Non-Degree Credentials

By Lindsey Reichlin Cruse, March 06, 2023

Reflecting on the Second Cohort of the Quality Postsecondary Credential Policy Academy

In January 2023, National Skills Coalition (NSC) concluded its second Quality Postsecondary Credential Policy Academy. Five states participated in the academy, including Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, Ohio, and Tennessee. From fall 2021-December 2022, NSC worked in partnership with Education Strategy Group (ESG) and with generous support from the Lumina Foundation to help these states develop definitions of quality non-degree credentials (using NSC’s consensus quality criteria) and advance a policy agenda that utilizes their definition to increase quality credential attainment, improve equity for learners, and enhance state capacity to measure and report on non-degree credential outcomes.

About the Policy Academy

State teams engaged a range of key stakeholders across state offices, systems, and agencies, including higher education, workforce development, economic development, secondary education, and governors’ offices. NSC helped state teams build action plans to develop and codify quality definitions and to achieve policy change that improves access, affordability, equity, and data transparency and reporting related to high-quality non-degree credentials. NSC also provided tailored technical assistance to advance these plans, supporting state leaders in navigating challenges and technical questions, sharing relevant state examples, and identifying opportunities to deepen and expand their work on quality assurance. Peer learning opportunities held in collaboration with ESG shared information and promising practices for defining and operationalizing quality non-degree credential frameworks, including how to integrate and center equity, identifying key elements of quality assurance definitions, understanding stackability and its importance for quality, and how to leverage data to identify credentials according to quality criteria.

NSC also supported Nevada in the development of meaningful, authentic partnerships through the creation of an advisory committee to help inform the cross-agency state team on equitable access and attainment policies for quality non-degree credentials. Advisory committee members included working students or leaders who serve working students, businesses, racial justice and civil rights advocates, and culturally responsive service providers supporting both workers and jobseekers.

“Our participation in NSC’s Policy Academy allowed us to collaborate across agencies around the way we use data to honestly assess and increase implementation of an aligned learn-and-work ecosystem that advances quality credential attainment and equity,” said Meredith Fergus, Director of Research for the Minnesota Office of Higher Education. “Minnesota has set one of the highest attainment goals in the country. Our work through the Academy has helped us develop a framework for ensuring all Minnesotans have the opportunity and information they need to earn the high-quality credentials people need for family sustaining wages and career growth.”

“Thanks to our participation in the NSC Postsecondary Policy Academy, Nevada is well poised to make instrumental policy change in 2023,” said Kate Gilbertson, Policy Analyst, NV’s Governor’s Office of Workforce Innovation. “The Academy fostered collaboration between state agencies and key stakeholders to work on creating one nationally recognized credential list of programs offered in Nevada. This will create transparency and simplicity for credential seekers in our State, making it easier for workers and businesses to enter the skilled trades professions.”

State Progress toward Defining and Implementing Quality Criteria and Policy

The five states participating in NSC’s Policy Academy made significant progress towards the development and implementation of quality definitions for non-degree credentials and related policies.

  • In Tennessee, team leads at the Tennessee Higher Education Commission are developing legislation that would codify their quality criteria into statute, with the aim to provide a statewide standard for non-degree credentials that will ensure students of color and other underrepresented groups receive quality credentials. With their criteria codified into law, they hope to implement those criteria in conjunction with the state’s access and attainment initiative, Momentum Year 2023.

  • In Minnesota, a quality framework, designed in the form of a rubric that assesses quality for all levels of credentials, programs, and providers, will be presented for adoption to the Minnesota P-20 Education Partnership. Minnesota team leads will also work towards legislation that will establish quality non-degree credentials as counting towards the state postsecondary credential attainment goal and explore use cases for the rubric, such as through new financial aid for quality non-degree credentials (Minnesota is also participating in NSC’s State Financial Assistance for Quality Non-Degree Credentials Initiative).

Academy states also built bridges between agencies and stakeholders, continuing to socialize and build buy-in for quality assurance for non-degree credentials, defining key terms for use across systems and occupation and credential lists, and identifying areas of future work to measure and report on credential quality and equity.

  • Missouri’s recent integration of its departments of higher education and workforce development into one agency added complexity to their work in the academy, but also presented new opportunity to mobilize staff from both systems under a common mission that they can advance collectively. Missouri plans to grow quality non-degree credential attainment for residents through intentional alignment of councils organized by the Office of Apprenticeship and Work-Based Learning, which include employers and industry representatives, institutions of higher education, training providers, and other stakeholders.

  • Ohio’s work in the academy built on a number of current initiatives, programs, and investments focused on facilitating quality non-degree credential attainment, including through Industry Recognized Credential Transfer Assurance Guides (ITAGs), which build pathways for assessing industry-recognized credentials for credit in select fields, and the Short-Term Certificate Grant Program. The team worked to define key terms that fit cross-system and policy contexts and shared its work in the academy with multistakeholder groups to build buy-in across agencies.

Staff capacity and turnover were common themes for all state teams, underscoring the importance of dedicated staff and resources to maintain efforts to develop and implement sustainable quality assurance frameworks.

  • Nevada is planning to establish a new full-time staff position to support its work to develop a quality assurance framework, which will take place alongside efforts to develop a credential registry/master credential list and to improve transparency and accountability for credential performance. Ultimately, they hope to enact a legislative mandate requiring a unified credentials list that delegates responsibilities to agencies and organizations. The state is also planning to continue to engage its advisory committee established during the academy. Two successful advisory committee meetings of diverse community stakeholders hosted by the team helped to inform a strategy for expanding access and attainment of quality non-degree credentials, provide input on how information about credentials is communicated, and reflect and advise on the state’s outreach and engagement strategies.

Next Steps for NSC’s Quality Credential Work

NSC is grateful to the state teams, national partners, and its funders for supporting this work to help states advance and implement quality assurance for non-degree credentials. Quality non-degree credentials remain an in-demand and critical component of the postsecondary system and workforce pipeline, but they require intentional policy design and transparent data systems to ensure learners who earn them can access high-quality careers and advancement opportunities that lead to strong and equitable economic outcomes. Building on the progress made by states in both cohorts of the Policy Academy, NSC will continue working in partnership with states and national leaders to enhance state attention to and capacity for measuring and reporting on the quality and equity of non-degree credentials, and for designing policy and state investments that increase individuals’ ability to access quality credentials that lead to economic mobility and equity.