Why the Lumina Foundation Is Betting Big on New Kinds of Credentials

Digital Learning

Why the Lumina Foundation Is Betting Big on New Kinds of Credentials

By Jeffrey R. Young     May 15, 2018

Why the Lumina Foundation Is Betting Big on New Kinds of Credentials

This article is part of the guide: EdSurge Live: A Town-Hall Style Video Forum.

A college degree isn’t the only path to meaningful work. In fact, these days it seems like there are more kinds of credentials than ever, some with trademarked names like Nanodegrees and MicroMasters.

One leading force in reinventing the credential is the Lumina Foundation, one of the largest nonprofits focused on higher education. The group has an ambitious goal to increase the number of Americans with some kind of high-quality credential. But what counts as high-quality? And how can students and employers sort through all the new options?

To get at those issues, EdSurge recently sat down with Courtney Brown, the Lumina Foundation’s vice president for strategic impact. She laid out the group’s vision for the future of credentials, and (in the full audio version) she talked about what the cartoon The Jetsons says about the future of education and the workplace.

Subscribe to the EdSurge On Air podcast on your favorite podcast app (like iTunes or Stitcher). Or read highlights from the conversation (which have been edited and condensed for clarity).

EdSurge: Lumina has been actively involved in supporting new kinds of credentials like microcredentials. What's the vision behind this?

Brown: The Lumina Foundation is the largest foundation in the U.S. that is focused specifically on post-secondary education—anything beyond high school. A number of years ago, we set a goal for the nation that by 2025, 60 percent of Americans will hold a high-quality certificate, degree, or other high-quality credential.

The reason we set this goal for the nation is that we believe we need better and more talent in the U.S. to have a better society, or compete economically, compete globally. Currently, as a nation, we're at about 42 percent [of adults] that have degrees. When we add certificates, we're roughly at about 47 percent. We're nowhere near where the nation needs to be with regards to talent.

We estimate about 65 percent of jobs in 2025 will require some form of post-secondary education. So everything we do is about supporting education so that Americans have what they need to be able to have a good job, and good lives in the future.

How do you tell which ones are high quality? There are more and more options, so how do you sort through that?

We look more at the system level. Degrees on average have a much higher outcome—about a million dollars a person over the course of a lifetime than without a degree—and so in the aggregate, they lead to jobs. When the recession hit, most people that had a degree did not lose their job, or quickly found another job. It's the people that did not have a credential that suffered the most in a recession, and they couldn't get another job, they had nothing to go get further education with. Those are the people who suffered the most.

Certificates provide a 20 percent premium over high school, in the aggregate, and certificates also lead to further education because most of them are provided at a two-year technical institution, and so they're credit-bearing and then can lead to further education.

Certifications don't do that. They almost live in a black box. So until we can unpack that, and make them more transparent so that the learner understands what they're getting, the employer understands, and [education] providers understand, we want to make sure that those are high quality. So we're working to unpack that box a bit.

Are the number of credentials people are getting going up?

So we count our goal as the first credential. But the reality is the future of work—which is a big topic these days—is demanding this lifelong learning. So it's no longer sufficient to learn from five years old until 21, and then have a job until 65, and then retire.

Really the current state of work requires lifelong learning. So you don't end at 21, you may get a degree or certificate at age 20, and then at age 25, you need a certification on top of that, and then maybe you go back and get a degree, or times are changing, and you need a different type of certificate. So this is an ongoing process, and because of that, we're seeing a lot of people have almost a deck of credentials, and they're trying to figure out the best way to use those credentials, and I imagine that, in the future, we'll see much more of that, that learning will just be a continuous process, whether it's through a provider, an employer, a community-service [organization] or something like that.

One of the things Lumina is supporting with your grants are microcredentials, like the online MicroMasters offered by colleges working with edX. Do you see micro-credentials growing?

Absolutely. EdX works globally, and we're trying to understand what the value of those credentials are. These MicroMasters, micro-credentials, are on top of a degree. So most people that get a MicroMasters have a bachelor's degree. They tend to be a top-off, not a beginning. We're trying to explore, could they be that first credential? Could an adult get a MicroMasters as their first credential, to give them that first rung on the ladder, and then take that and build on it? Or maybe that's sufficient for what they need, but then they can still use that learning and apply it to other learning.

We're really trying to unpack that. One of my concerns about some of these microcredentials is many of them are for the elite, already. They're for the privileged. I already have education, and I'm in a privileged spot, where I can learn this while I'm on the job, or maybe my job will pay for it. They are not always accessible to those people that have no training, and no education, and have low resources to even pay for them.

The education have-nots?

Right, and many of them can be expensive. And at Lumina Foundation, at our core we are focused on an equity imperative, to ensure that we are closing these racial and ethnic gaps that exist, and so what we don't want to do is create a system that creates a larger gap.

That's a tricky one, right. Some people question whether even the premise of these online programs is that they only work for people who are comfortable with college. Is it ever going to work for some of the education have-nots, or the underserved populations?

Right. I mean there are some great delivery methods that can reach many different people, and today it seems like there's something for everyone. We just want to make sure that everyone can access that.

Part of the problem with MOOCs was it was the same delivery method. It was kind of lecturing at people, and people didn't have access to it, and it's free, but it really was not available to everybody. It was those people that already had degrees, and whatnot. So edX is working on that, and trying to make education much more accessible to everyone across the globe.

It seems like an important piece of the puzzle, for any of these new credentials, is employers' acceptance. Is there a growing acceptance of some of these new ideas like microcredentials, or is that a continued challenge?

I think it's a continued challenge. I think there's more understanding of them. Employers have a lot of their own training, and so they understand their training.

One of the things that we also work on at Lumina is transparency. So we want to ensure that all credentials have transparency—that you can kind of look under the hood and understand what it is, what somebody knows, and what they're able to do. That's important for the learner, that's important for the provider, and that's absolutely important for the employer.

Another piece of the puzzle is obviously students, and raising awareness. If I talk to somebody just on a bus or with somebody in the street, they might not have any idea there's a MicroMasters, or there's a MOOC. They've never heard of it. Is that something you all are working to address?

Yeah, it's a really good point. I think one of the biggest things we need to get over is that when most people think about college, or a credential, they think about going somewhere for four years. It's brick buildings, and that's the only way you can get something beyond high school.

And that's not the reality anymore. Very few students actually live on campus for four years in a brick building. Many more students are married. They have children. Way too many students are below the poverty line, and they come from all sorts of races, ethnicities, and they're all ages. And they're attending part-time, and full-time, and they're employed. And so today's students don't represent, at all, who we all have in mind when we think about somebody getting a post-high school credential. So [we’re working on] increasing awareness for all of us that there are these range of possibilities.

I think as the future of work continues to change, then the future of how you're going to be able to obtain competencies and then demonstrate the competencies is going to change tremendously. It will no longer be in a seat for hours at a time, listening to somebody speak to you.

Yeah. It seems like the idea of lifelong learning can become expensive for people, even if some of the credentials are low-cost. Are you seeing employers more willing to pay for this? Who will help pay for this trend of continual education?

So I think there are a couple things. Obviously, employers are trying to cut costs, and they may not think that training is important, so that may be something that gets on the chopping block. But we actually ran a few ROI studies with a number of different large employers a couple of years ago, and found that those employers that offered training found that their employees retained longer, they had less sick time, they were much more productive. They actually saw a return on investment for the training, which was very positive for I believe all of the employers that we worked with.

I also think that training doesn't have to be some really formalized training where we all sit down and we go, "We're training right now, for the next three hours, and then we're going to be done training." I think we're all learning things on the job. However long you've been on a job, for a year, six years, or whatnot, it's constantly changing.

I also think that the market is opening up a lot more, and so these things are more accessible, so it doesn't necessarily have to be a high cost.

What about about the policy environment we're in? Do you see any changes in Washington in the Trump administration or the latest Education Department? Are you seeing any interest in this area, or changes in the current administration?

Absolutely. We work at the local level, state level, national level, and so we see a lot more interest in all kinds of credentials. Apprenticeships come up quite a bit these days, but apprenticeships are built on all of these smaller credentials, on certificates, and certifications, and licenses that are all part of an apprenticeship, and so there's absolutely much more interest in these.

We have 41 states in the U.S. that have an attainment goal, right now. It doesn't have to be the 60 percent by 2025, like Lumina's. States, and actually the country, and local communities, recognize that their labor markets demand these type of credentials, and so they're putting more resources in those, so that they can pull in more employees, and then they can make sure that they have the labor market that these employees need.

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