Credential chaos: Growing “maze” of education credentials is confusing consumers and employers

When Nate Tsang gets a resume from a job applicant to his company, WallStreetZen, he often sees credentials he’s 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 learned.”

Tsang, whose company provides stock research for investors, is among the many employers weighing the quality of a bewildering proliferation of education credentials on applicants’ resumes and transcripts — and whether or not they’re even real. 

“There certainly are more and more certification programs every year,” he said. “Unless it’s an actual degree, I can’t accept the certification at face value.” 

When an employer told an applicant for a job that it wouldn’t accept his purported Ph.D., he tried in vain to cash it in for a bachelor’s degree at Pace University. Credit: Rob Kim/Getty Images

There is, in fact, a “maze” of 967,734 unique education credentials in the United States, the nonprofit Credential Engine reports, including not only degrees but also badges, certificates, licenses, apprenticeships and industry certifications. The figure is expected to have only grown during the pandemic as more people seek education and training.

This is causing growing confusion among employers scrambling for workers — and increasing concern among university registrars and others about whether unsavory players may be taking advantage of the situation to sell fraudulent credentials. 

“What folks are struggling with is whether or not that credential means what it says it means,” said Julie Uranis, vice president for online and strategic initiatives at the University Professional and Continuing Education Association. 

More well-paid jobs require at least some education or training beyond high school — about 80 percent of them, according to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. 

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

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“The student market is incredibly tight, and [colleges] are, just, ‘Let’s just throw everything we can out there and see who bites, and call it a badge or call it a certificate,’ ” said Shawn O’Riley, associate vice president of professional education and special programs at Pace University.

The way new kinds of credentials are being developed and awarded is “a bit like the wild west,” a study by the Rutgers University Education and Employment Research Center found. (The study was underwritten by the Lumina Foundation, which is among the funders of The Hechinger Report.)

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

This doesn’t mean that all the education isn’t valid, said Uranis. But amid the clutter, it can be hard to tell.

“I could have a credential in cybersecurity, but if I got it from an entity that previously was focused on food handling, you have to worry about whether they’re qualified to teach that subject matter,” she said.

The proliferation of education credentials available online, combined with many others taught in person, is making it harder for consumers and employers to know what each credential teaches, and how effectively. Credit: Jackie Mader/The Hechinger Report

Learners and employers alike “have to be critical consumers,” Uranis said. But given the flood of education and training programs, “having an employer verify what that credential is, it takes time, and not every hiring manager is going to have that kind of time.”

That’s especially true now, said John Dooney, a “knowledge advisor” at the Society for Human Resource Management — an association of human resource officers — who previously worked as a hiring manager himself.

“You’re in an environment now where it’s so difficult to find people that many companies may not overly pay attention to that,” Dooney said. “They’re so desperate to fill positions that they may want to speed up the process.”

Even before the pandemic and the subsequent labor squeeze, 39 percent of human resources managers said they spent less than a minute reading a resume, according to a survey by CareerBuilder. About one in five said they spent less than 30 seconds.

Consumers, too, are likely looking for shortcuts, said Allen Ezell, a retired FBI agent who spent much of his career investigating education fraud and the often multinational scammers that sell credentials from made-up universities.

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“The more pressure we put on people to have academic credentials, and the more important they are for opening the door or getting a raise or a promotion, the more the bad guys are going to take care of the demand side of the curve,” Ezell said.

During the pandemic, diploma mills “were tickled pink when all these people were at home going to the internet trying to find a place to continue their educations,” he added.

Even if they’re looking for authentic education programs, prospective students have to navigate the complexities of higher education and its poorly understood accreditation system.

Providers “use the vagaries of accreditation to say, ‘Hey, we’re accredited by some made-up thing,’ and that’s enough to fool people,” said O’Riley, at Pace. “It allows bad actors to exploit that lack of understanding into students enrolling” in programs whose credentials are almost certain not to be accepted by employers or by universities for transfer credit.

The nonprofit Credential Engine is trying to bring order to the chaos of the 967,734 education credentials on the market by creating a registry of them. So far it’s catalogued about 3 percent of the total.

Conventional higher education institutions are increasingly alarmed about the holes 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 wage what it called “the complex battle against this kind of fraud.”

That book probably wasn’t necessary 10 years ago,” said Dooney. “The market is coming around to recognizing these issues.”

The numbers keep growing. A quarter of American adults hold nondegree credentials, meaning something short of an associate or bachelor’s degree, according to federal data, and they’ve become more popular in recent years. Among other things, advocates say,  they encourage equity by giving consumers a way to get jobs without spending three or more years in college getting degrees they don’t need.

Related: As enrollment falls and colleges close, a surprising number of new ones are opening

“If there’s a way to get a really skilled employee in less time and with less effort, they’re really interested in that,” O’Riley said. “But they struggle with that same question, which is, ‘What’s the real currency of an individual credential?’ ”

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

Some of the hand-wringing by registrars and others at universities and colleges over the huge increases in the number and variety of educational credentials, however, may actually mask concerns over unaccustomed competition, said Amrit Ahluwalia, director of strategic insights at Modern Campus. The company builds web pages for universities on which students can find their own previous credentials and be offered options to take more.

“The more pressure we put on people to have academic credentials, and the more important they are for opening the door or getting a raise or a promotion, the more the bad guys are going to take care of the demand side of the curve.”

Allen Ezell, retired FBI agent who investigates education fraud

“As online education becomes normalized, as a credential from Google or Microsoft can get someone a job, all of a sudden we’re in an environment where higher education doesn’t have a monopoly on education,” Ahluwalia said.

Universities themselves have been among the employers taken in by spurious credentials. The managing director of a theater company operated by the University of Utah resigned in August when it was disclosed that he had claimed to have a master’s degree he hadn’t earned.

Also in August, a former administrator at Virginia’s Mid-Atlantic Maritime Academy, which trains people who work on merchant ships, was sentenced to prison for selling fake credentials to more than 250 people, certifying that they had passed Coast Guard-approved deck and engineering courses they hadn’t actually taken.

Attempts are being made to bring order to this chaos.

There are now 967,734 unique education credentials in the United States, including not only associate, bachelor’s and doctoral degrees but also more than half a million different badges, certificates, licenses, apprenticeships and industry certifications.

Backed by employers, Credential Engine is building a registry of credentials with the formidable goal of eventually listing all of them, along with the format of instruction, whether they’re accredited, how long they take and what jobs they may lead to.

“It’s a shame, and it’s also a bit of a social crime that we don’t make this information freely available yet to all consumers,” said Scott Cheney, Credential Engine’s CEO.

“There are credentials that are offered legally that don’t help move someone along,” Cheney said. “They leave people in debt, they don’t lead to jobs, they aren’t respected by employers. If you live in any major city, you’re going to see ads on the bus advertising those programs. I want to make sure people can get information about whether or not what’s in that ad has value or leads to a dead end.”

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

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Concern over the legitimacy of credentials and what they teach is “one of the reasons companies like Credly exist and have grown,” said Jonathan Finkelstein, its founder and CEO. Hiring managers’ problem, he said, “is not the quantity of resumes they receive. It’s determining who has the skills they say they have and that the employer needs. This is a data problem that technology can solve.”

This fall, Modern Campus started using the same kind of blockchain technology that safeguards cryptocurrency to store and share information about credentials its users have earned.

International educational credentials are also tough to vet, giving rise to yet another legion of middlemen that are trying to sort out what they represent.

“The more mobile we become — and we have become so much more mobile now through online education — the more we will see dubious credentials,” said Jasmin Saidi-Kuehnert, president and CEO of the Academic Credentials Evaluation Institute.

“The more mobile we become — and we have become so much more mobile now through online education — the more we will see dubious credentials.”

Jasmin Saidi-Kuehnert, president and CEO, Academic Credentials Evaluation Institute

“It’s a sad situation to be in but we pretty much look at every document with the sense of you’re guilty until proven innocent,” said Saidi-Kuehnert, who is also president of the board of the Association of International Credential Evaluators.

In general, “there isn’t a good single place you can go to verify these credentials — a Better Business Bureau, or a J.D. Power ranking,” said Todd Thibodeaux, president and CEO of the technology industry association CompTIA. “They just pop up out of nowhere. You don’t know if people are adhering to the kinds of standards you do.”

Even the Credential Engine Registry so far includes full or partial information on only about 30,000 educational credentials. That’s about 3 percent of the total it eventually hopes to list. 

Until then, “until we sort that out, we’re going to continue to be in this place where we’re wondering” whether or not a credential is legitimate, said Uranis, whose organization just formed an Alternative Credentials Network 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 that we’re ever going to have anything that comprehensive and specific. It might be a cluster of information sources,” she said. “But that would be far and away better than what we have now.”

This story about educational credentials was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.

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