A nonprofit organization spent five years counting one million credentials. What does it all matter?

For the past five years, researchers have carefully counted all the degrees, certificates, and badges people can earn in the United States, a number they say now totals 1,076,358.

And for the past five years, this enumeration project has left some observers scratching their heads and asking…why?

The effort, run by the nonprofit Credential Engine, celebrated its half-decade this week with a virtual gathering to present its latest research report and a reception in Washington, DC to celebrate its anniversary. As an afternoon of Zoom presentations gave way to an evening of conversation over cocktails, the purpose and potential of all those counts came into focus.

More than two dozen states are now working with Credential Engine, using the Credential Transparency Description Language it developed to compile, sort, and better understand their education and workforce data. And some state governments use this system to help their residents directly. For example, during the webinar, an executive from the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development explained how her state is creating a digital search tool that allows people to select from any available credentials and sort by occupation, program location, and degree results.

The growing acceptance is a sign that more policymakers and officials are realizing the importance of creating more transparency in the education market, Credential Engine executives told EdSurge during interviews at the nonprofit’s reception on Dec. 7.

“This is right for your students,” said Scott Cheney, CEO of Credential Engine. “It’s crazy that it’s easier to search, compare and select a hotel room or used car online than it is to make an informed decision about what academic qualifications to pursue.

However, advocates of different but related efforts to improve higher education and vocational training programs for participants and employers have different ideas about what transparency really means when it comes to credentials. Some told EdSurge that they would like to see the credential counting effort address deeper questions.

“We still don’t have an accurate sense of which credentials offer the most value,” said Michael Bettersworth, vice chancellor at Texas State Technical College and CEO of SkillsEngine. “Which of these offer the most opportunities for people who want better career advancement?”

Colleges have competition – and opportunities

As in previous editions, this year’s Credential Engine report provides insight into the wide range of credentials being offered by traditional and emerging providers – including colleges and universities, boot camps and apprenticeships. The report breaks down these credentials into 18 categories from four types of providers: post-secondary educational institutions, MOOC organizations, secondary schools, and non-academic institutions.

New to the research this year is the count of how many groups in the US present credentials: 59,692. That huge number indicates there has been an “explosion” of vendors, Cheney said, including big companies like Google, Amazon and LinkedIn offering job training courses and badges. According to the report, of the four categories of providers, non-academic institutions offer the largest number of credentials.

The fact that colleges aren’t high on the list of credential providers should signal leaders at traditional higher education institutions that it’s time to pay attention to any organizations now competing for students, especially as college enrollments are declining are, said Eleni Papadakis. Executive Director of the Washington State Workforce Training and Education Coordinating Board and a member of the Credential Engine Board of Directors.

Papadakis argued that colleges that are open to rethinking the way they work—perhaps by adopting competency-based education and offering credit for prior learning—have the opportunity to become hubs for many types of learning experiences, leading to a multitude lead from testimonials. At a time when the relationship between employers and employees is changing, she explained, this could help both companies and employees to find new vocational training paths and further training programmes.

Universities could also play a role in sharing information with the learning and training ecosystem. For example, Southern New Hampshire University uses Credential Engine’s Credential Transparency Description Language to make open data about its credentials and courses widely available.

What about value and quality?

The credential engine login register is not a ranking. For example, search its Credential Finder system for “nursing” credentials and it will return 1,987 results, including a certified nursing assistant license, a certificate of completion in nursing education, and a bachelor of science degree in nursing.

The nonprofit’s systems are not designed to tell students and workers which program is best or where to earn degrees, certificates and badges, said Barbara Gellman-Danley, executive director of the Credential Engine, who also chairs the Higher Learning Commission , an accreditation organization, is . Instead, the nonprofit’s efforts aim to create a level playing field by collecting and sharing information about all available options, she explained.

For Jennifer Dirmeyer, executive director of the Workforce Talent Educators Association, this makes some sense because it helps avoid “privileging certain types of education systems over others,” she told EdSurge in an interview. She added that enumerating all existing evidence and developing a common language to describe it is a solid foundation – a first step – for further work.

“This is absolutely necessary, but not sufficient. We need to live up to the potential that Credential Engine creates for us by using this to improve the conversation about outcomes,” Dirmeyer said. “I think transparency about what’s happening isn’t that useful. Transparency about the results of what is happening is extremely useful.”

Other ongoing efforts may more directly reveal or affect the outcomes that various credentials provide to students and companies. For example, the Center on Education and Labor at New America examined what makes nondegree programs “high quality.” The Workforce Talent Educators Association supports vocational training programs with quality assurance. And SkillsEngine aims to help providers transform their skills programs to ensure they are providing students with skills that employers are actually looking for.

SkillsEngine’s Bettersworth said he’d like to see an index of skills showing what employers really value. (Bettersworth was on the Credential Engine’s technical advisory group for a time, but isn’t currently.) Dirmeyer said she wants a data system that will help employers open up to different types of credentials when evaluating applicants and hire – and therefore make more job offers for people from different backgrounds.

“If employers can’t use this effectively to actually refine their search process, they’ll go back to the same methods they’ve always used,” Dirmeyer said. “Those credentials will not have the power they could have.”

Any effort can only go so far so quickly. However, experts inside and outside of Credential Engine agree that the information the nonprofit has collected – and the common language it has created to define that information – can be applied in all sorts of ways in the future, especially since their data is open and available for other entities to use.

As Kerry Ballast, an executive with the Texas Workforce Commission, explained during the Credential Engine webinar, she found that in her first year dealing with credentials, “it’s all about quantity.”

Now she’s looking forward to thinking about “quality,” she said.