Growing ‘labyrinth’ of educational credentials confuses job seekers and employers


When Nate Tsang receives a CV from a candidate for his company, WallStreetZen, he often sees references he has never heard of.

So these days, as part of the hiring process, he gets straight to the sometimes uncomfortable point: “I’m going to ask them what they’ve learned.

Tsang, whose company provides stock research to investors, is among many employers who rate the quality of a bewildering proliferation of academic credentials on applicants’ resumes and transcripts – and if they’re even real. .

“There are definitely more and more certification programs every year,” he said. “Unless it is an actual diploma, I cannot accept the certification at face value. “

There is in fact a “labyrinth” of nearly a million unique degrees in the United States, reports the nonprofit Credential Engine, comprising not only degrees, but also badges, certificates, licenses, apprenticeships. and industry certifications. Others have emerged during the pandemic as career changers seek education and training.

The result is confusion among employers scrambling to find workers – and growing concern that unsavory players could take advantage of this to sell fraudulent credentials.

“What people are struggling with is whether or not this degree means what it means,” said Julie Uranis, vice president of online and strategic initiatives at the Professional and Continuing Education Association. of the University.

Higher-paying jobs require at least some education or training beyond high school – about 80% of them, according to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

Enthusiastic providers, including universities and for-profit companies that offer training and education, are responding with a dizzying number of accreditation programs.

“The student market is incredibly tight, and [colleges] are simply, “Let’s throw away whatever we can, call it a badge or call it a certificate,” said Shawn O’Riley, associate vice president of vocational training and special programs at Pace University.

Certificate to do what else?

According to a study by the Rutgers University Education and Employment Research Center, the way in which new types of degrees are developed and awarded is “a bit like the Old West.” (The study was funded by the Lumina Foundation, which is one of the backers of the Hechinger Report.)

“There is no one set of standards, no mechanism or system to help workers, employers, policy makers and educational institutions define or measure quality,” the Rutgers researchers concluded.

This does not mean that all education is not valid, said Uranis. But in the midst of the clutter, it can be hard to tell.

“I could have a degree in cybersecurity, but if I got it from an entity that previously focused on food handling, you must be wondering if it is qualified to teach this subject,” she said. .

Students in these programs and employers “have to be critical consumers,” Uranis said. But given the flood of education and training programs and the rush for workers, “asking an employer to verify what that degree is takes time, and not all hiring managers will have it.” kind of weather ”.

This is especially true now, said John Dooney, an adviser at the Society for Human Resource Management, an association of human resource managers.

Even before the pandemic and the workforce contraction that followed, 39% of human resources managers said they spent less than a minute reading a resume, according to a CareerBuilder survey.

Consumers, too, are probably looking for shortcuts, said Allen Ezell, a retired FBI agent who has spent much of his career investigating education fraud and the often multinational con artists who sell them. invented university degrees.

“The more pressure we put on people to have college degrees, and the more important they are to open the door or get a raise or a promotion, the more bad guys are going to take care of the demand side of the curve.” Ezell said.

The value of accreditation can be difficult to verify

Even though they are looking for authentic educational programs, prospective students must navigate the complexities of higher education and its poorly understood accreditation system.

Suppliers “use the vagaries of accreditation to say, ‘Hey, we’re accredited by something made up,’ and that’s enough to fool people,” O’Riley said. “This allows bad actors to exploit this lack of understanding of students who enroll” in programs that are almost certain not to be accepted by employers or universities for credit transfer.

Mainstream higher education institutions are increasingly alarmed by the loopholes that have developed in a system that was previously much simpler.

The American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers this year produced a 264-page guide to bogus institutions and documents to help its members fight what it calls “the complex battle against this type of fraud.”

“This book was probably not needed 10 years ago,” Dooney said.

Increase in diplomas without a diploma

A quarter of American adults now have non-degree degrees, which means something less than an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, according to federal data, and they have become more popular in recent years. Among other things, advocates say they’re promoting fairness by giving consumers a way to get jobs without spending years in college getting degrees they don’t need.

“If there is a way to get a truly qualified employee in less time and with less effort, [companies] are really interested in this, ”O’Riley said. “But they are grappling with the same question, namely, ‘What is the real motto of an individual degree? “”

The answers, he said, are “all over the map”.

But some of the criticism of universities and colleges of the academic credential boom may actually mask concerns about new competition, said Amrit Ahluwalia, director of strategic ideas at Modern Campus, which creates webpages for students. universities where students can find their own precedent. credentials and be offered more.

“As online education becomes normalized, that a degree from Google or Microsoft can get someone a job, we suddenly find ourselves in an environment where higher education doesn’t have to. the monopoly on education, ”Ahluwalia said.

Universities themselves have been among the employers hired by bogus degrees. In August, the CEO of a theater company operated by the University of Utah resigned when it was revealed that he had claimed to have a master’s degree which he had not obtained.

Bring order to chaos

Credential Engine creates a registry of credentials for the terrific purpose of listing them all, along with the format of the instruction, if they are accredited, how long they take, and what jobs they can lead to.

“Some credentials are offered legally and don’t help someone progress,” said Scott Cheney, CEO of Credential Engine. “They leave people in debt, they don’t lead to jobs, they don’t get respected by employers. If you live in any major city, you will see advertisements on buses announcing these programs. I want to make sure that people can get some information as to whether what’s in this ad is valuable or leading to a dead end.

A small industry of credential assessors has sprung up to assess the quality of credentials for hiring managers and universities. Other companies, such as Credly, validate digital credentials and the skills they represent in a way that can be easily verified online. The number of organizations using it has nearly doubled in the past year, Credly said.

“It’s a sad situation, but we look at just about every document with a feeling that you are guilty until your innocence is proven,” said Jasmin Saidi-Kuehnert, President and CEO of Academic Credentials Evaluation Institute and Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Academic Credentials Evaluation Institute. Association of International Diploma Evaluators.

The accreditation engine register so far includes full or partial information on around 30,000 diplomas. That’s about 3% of the total he hopes to eventually list.

Until then, “we’re going to continue to be in this place where we wonder” whether a degree is legitimate or not, said Uranis, whose organization has just formed a network of alternative degrees to help set quality standards. for these programs.

“Are we ever going to have a Kelley Blue Book or Consumer Reports for credentials?” I don’t know if we’ll ever have something so comprehensive and specific. It could be a bunch of news sources, ”she said. “But it would be far better than what we have now.”

This report is a product of The Hechinger Report, an independent, nonprofit news organization focused on inequalities and innovation in education.


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