Defining quality non-degree credentials is crucial to putting students on a path to success

By Amy Ellen Duke-Benfield, September 23, 2019

If states want to build an inclusive economy where all workers and all businesses have the skills they need to stay competitive in a rapidly changing global marketplace, everyone must work together to expand access to and attainment of degrees and credentials of value. Non-degree credentials, such as certificates, industry certifications, apprenticeship certificates, and occupational licenses, are a key component of state economic development and credential attainment goals, helping workers obtain better jobs and serving to reconnect them to further postsecondary education and training opportunities. In Expanding Opportunities: Defining quality non-degree credentials for states, National Skills Coalition (NSC) proposes a consensus definition of quality non-degree credentials (quality NDCs) and criteria developed in consultation with twelve leading states and national organizations, that states can adopt for their own quality assurance systems in order to make sensible budget and policy decisions and advance equity, putting students on a path to success.

The criteria identified should allow state policymakers to be comfortable supporting quality NDC programs with public funds, students to be confident about selecting high-quality training, and employers to understand which programs are effectively preparing students for careers. Consistent with NSC’s recommendation in The Roadmap for Racial Equity: An imperative for workforce development advocates, the quality NDC criteria can also help states address racial and other equity gaps by providing more pathways into quality postsecondary education and training and good jobs for people of color. A quality NDC definition can also help state policymakers identify and invest in new and emerging credentials that can help workers upskill quickly in response to technological changes and can help displaced workers figure out the right next steps as they transition to new occupations or industries.

To achieve the goal of developing a consensus definition of quality NDCs, NSC engaged with twelve states that had already established or were in the process of developing quality assurance criteria and processes for NDCs, and sought feedback from a range of national and state higher education and workforce development officials and local practitioners.

General Principles for Defining a Quality Non-Degree Credential

A quality credential provides individuals with the means to achieve their informed employment and educational goals. Individuals cannot achieve their employment goals without meeting the needs of employers.

  • The definition should support equitable credential attainment.
  • There must be valid and reliable, transparent evidence that the credential satisfies the criteria that constitute quality.
  • States should have discretion in making operational decisions such as determining whether to combine criteria in a composite rating, while still safeguarding quality.
  • States must have a public process to determine which credentials are quality, a process that ensures integrity and includes input from key stakeholders and an appeals process.

Definition and Criteria

A quality NDC is one that provides individuals with the means to equitably achieve their informed employment and educational goals. There must be valid, reliable, and transparent evidence that the credential satisfies the criteria that constitute quality.

Four criteria should be considered for a credential to be identified as a quality credential. NSC recommends the first three criteria be required and the fourth—stackability—be strongly preferred. Each criterion stands not alone but as part of a package.

Required Criteria:

  • There must be evidence of substantial job opportunities associated with the credential. Evidence must include quantitative data and direct communication with employers.
  • There must be transparent evidence of the competencies mastered by credential holders; competencies that align with expected job opportunities. A definition of a quality credential need not include any standard regarding length of time.
  • There must be evidence of the employment and earnings outcomes of individuals after obtaining the credential.

Strongly Preferred Criterion:

  • The credential would ideally stack to additional education or training. The gold standard is that credentials stack to additional education or training, but there is not a universal pathway to reach this standard so states agreed it should not be an overarching required criterion in defining a quality credential.


One key set of policy decisions facing states is determining which programs or policies will be covered by the criteria, the entities within the state that are responsible for developing and implementing the criteria, and the process by which the criteria will be established. Adopting criteria that can be applied across multiple programs and systems can support greater alignment between education, workforce, and human services investments.

States must also decide if they will adopt policies that seek to increase attainment of quality NDCs as part of their overall educational attainment and economic development strategies. These include expanding state financial aid and non-tuition supportive services for credential seekers, as well as strengthening career counseling capacity. States should also consider supporting the development of industry partnerships, expanding apprenticeship and other work-based learning models, investing in Integrated education and training programs, and supporting stackable credentials.

Since NSC’s quality NDC criteria call upon states to utilize labor market data to determine substantial job opportunities and to use credential and wage records to measure the employment and earnings outcomes of individuals after obtaining credentials, states need to develop policies to improve data, determine quality, and measure credential attainment. For instance, if education and career outcomes are not equitable, states can use these data to find the appropriate levers to fix inequities.

To learn more, consult National Skills Coalition’s publication, Expanding Opportunities: Defining Quality Non-Degree Credentials for States.