With 475,000 options, does America have too many non-degree credentials or too few?

Education comes in all forms.
Education comes in all forms.
Image: Reuters/Mike Segar
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

As college tuition continues to soar and employers increasingly focus on skills rather than degrees, nontraditional credentials—from online certificates to digital badges—are becoming more prevalent. A lot more prevalent.

A report from the nonprofit Credential Engine, backed by the Business Roundtable and Lumina Foundation, estimates there are 738,428 secondary and post-secondary credentials, including an estimated 475,000 non-degree credentials in the United States.

Credential Engine says its mission is “to create credential transparency, reveal the credential marketplace, increase credential literacy, and empower everyone to make more informed decisions about credentials and their value.” The study, conducted for Credential Engine by the Center for Regional Economic Competitiveness and the George Washington University Institute of Public Policy, looked at 17 credential categories that fall under four types of educational providers: secondary schools, postsecondary schools, massive open online course (MOOC) providers, and non-academic organizations. The data is sourced from various federal sources and online reports. 

That total number of credentials is more than double Credential Engine’s preliminary estimate of 334,114 credentials in April 2018, which included far fewer non-academic credentials. 

The proliferation of alternatives to traditional higher education makes sense; by 2020, 65% of all jobs in the US will require at least some secondary training, but not necessarily a degree, according to the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce.

But while the Credential Engine estimate provides a better picture of the size of the credential landscape, there is still more to be done to understand the credibility of these programs and their value in the economy.

In the report’s foreword, former US secretary of education Arne Duncan and former Florida governor Jeb Bush called for greater investment in national and state-led initiatives to help consumers make better, more informed decisions in navigating the credential landscape, and, ultimately, the workforce.

“What we still don’t know is whether we have enough—or too many—credentials for a country of our size,” they wrote, “or if we have the right mix of programs to meet employer needs across the country.”