GW-Based Research Network Explores Impact of Non-Degree Credentials

A report by the GW Institute of Public Policy calls for improved data sharing on skill-building programs viewed as a pathway to economic mobility in the post-COVID job market.

March 23, 2021

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By Kristen Mitchell

As workers and policymakers look at the best ways for individuals to secure stable employment after the economic downturn caused by COVID-19, non-degree credential programs have taken center stage as a quick and effective way for workers to enhance their skills or retrain for positions in new fields. A new report released by George Washington University researchers examines what we know about the value these credentials hold in the labor market and what research needs to be done to address significant questions that remain. 

Non-degree credentials programs range from industry-awarded certifications, licenses issued by governments to independent bootcamps and apprenticeships. They are widely seen as a tool for enabling social and economic mobility, while being a less time consuming and less costly alternative to traditional postsecondary education programs.

Little is known about these programs from a research perspective, however, and the education quality between programs can drastically range, according to the report published by the Non-Degree Credentials Research Network (NCRN), a project of the GW Institute of Public Policy's Program on Skills, Credentials and Workforce Policy. 

Non-degree credentials have been looked at as a potential lifeboat for displaced workers in the hospitality and restaurant industries that have been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, said Kyle Albert, assistant research professor and co-author of the report. Research shows, however, that not all programs are created equal and market value fluctuates between fields.

“On average non-degree credentials seem to be associated with higher earnings for those who do get them,” he said. “But there are some patterns of inequality around who earns credentials and who benefits from them that are concerning.”

Researchers need better access to data about non-degree credentials, Dr. Albert said. Better access to data would enable researchers to build tools and platforms to help individuals connect with non-degree credentials that will optimize career mobility.

The NCRN was formed in 2017 as a loose network of researchers interested in how non-degree credentials fit into evolving labor markets. Stephen Crawford, research professor and report co-author, said the network was formed out of a desire to “build a community of scholars” out of a historically fractured field and eventually develop policy recommendations.

This research received grant support from Lumina Foundation, which aims to expand student access to education beyond high school. NCRN researchers have participated in several webinars to discuss research developments over the past two years. The network’s report identifies 15 research questions the network believes should be a priority for the research community moving forward. 

There are huge discrepancies between certificates offered by different colleges and universities, training providers and for-profit programs, Dr. Albert said. It can be a challenge for employers to judge a job applicant’s skills and preparedness because they cannot assess easily what learning stands behind the certificate. 

“While these types of programs are increasingly attractive as a means to quickly re-employ workers displaced by the recession, or prepare new workers, there is reason for caution,” Dr. Albert said. “There's a danger that taxpayers could invest in the credentials with little value, and that the investments made in non-degree credentials could really be misspent,” he said. 

It is essential for the research community to study how non-degree credentials fit into both the short- and long-term vision for a more efficient and equitable labor market, the report says, and to propose and evaluate different policy options.