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August 10, 2001
An Explosion in Credentials
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Increasingly, the sheepskin on the wall doesn't neccessarily represent a traditional college degree.

Credentialing and certification in non-degreed programs, typically offered by businesses and community colleges, have exploded, according to a new survey.

Over the past decade, the U.S. higher education system has conferred nearly 5.5 million associate degrees and more than twice as many bachelor's degrees.

But at the same time, 50 major information-technology vendors and professional associations developed more than 300 IT certification programs and conferred about 2.4 million certifications upon approximately 1.6 million people worldwide.

The findings are reported in "Help Wanted...Credentials Required: Community Colleges in the Knowledge Economy," released jointly by Educational Testing Service and the American Association of Community Colleges.

The report discusses how non-degreed credentialing programs, including those that confer post-secondary certificates and standards-based certifications, have emerged and adapted to meet changing education and training requirements in the workplace.

Although IT certifications are perhaps the most visible kind of certification in the new "information economy," they are only the tip of the iceberg in the drive toward condensed learning formats and standards-based assessment, according to the report.

Other indicators of growth include:

  • The number of organizations offering certifications - credentials that require passing a standards-based exam - grew from 120 in 1965 to more than 1,600 in 1996.
  • In addition to college degrees, post-secondary institutions confer more than 630,000 certificates a year, credentials that signify short-term intensive learning but do not require an exam.
  • About 1,600 businesses have set up corporate universities to help workers upgrade their skills and prepare them for change on the job.

The report's authors, Anthony P. Carnevale, ETS vice president for public leadership, and Donna M. Desrochers, ETS senior economist, acknowledge that while it is difficult to ascertain the exact size of the non-degreed credentialing market, available evidence indicates it is large.

"Conservative estimates suggest that post-secondary certificates account for about one-fifth of credentials conferred in a single year," says Carnevale, "and that excludes certificates awarded by institutions that do not participate in federal financial aid programs, and certifications offered by companies, industry, trade, or professional associations."

One of the largest certification programs, the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence, lists 420,000 current certifications. Meanwhile, the American Nurses Credentialing Center has awarded more than 150,000 advanced practice or specialty certifications, and the Child Development Associate credential boasts more than 100,000 holders.

Community colleges in the forefront

While the report describes the framework and current status of the credentialing system, it also focuses on the role of community colleges in providing the education, training, and venue for acquiring these increasingly sought-after credentials.

"The nation's community colleges find themselves at the center of the skills validation industry because they provide and validate sought-after new skills while offering academic credentials. But with opportunity comes challenge," says Desrochers.

"If they are to maintain their currency in today's economy, community colleges must be agile enough to update and increasingly offer the types of services, certificates, and training their constituents demand."

The challenge for community colleges is to embrace and effectively manage their academic and vocational functions by:

  • Breaking down academic and vocational barriers and fostering synergy throughout their institutions.
  • Integrating certificate and certification programs so that they meet employer and student demands but don't cannibalize existing degree programs.
  • Aligning curricula to external national, or local, standards as appropriate.
  • Assessing their communities' training needs and then either collaborating or aggressively competing with other training providers.

The report also outlines changes in the economy that have led to the heightened demand for certifications and community college certificates.

AACC is a national organization representing more than 1,100 community, junior, and technical colleges and their 10 million students. ETS, a nonprofit, conducts education research and measurement.
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