Credentialed Learning For All

Authors & Gratitude

This paper was authored by Nate McClennen with contributions from the Getting Smart team and numerous friends and partners in the field. Much of the video content has been taken from our ongoing Getting Smart Town Halls, podcasts and more. It is also a part of our New Pathways campaign.

The production of this publication was made possible with generous support by American Student Assistance (ASA).

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Press play for an audio overview of Credentialed Learning

When a learner completes a program of study, they receive credentials. These credentials validate that the learner has demonstrated proficiency in all the recognized skills. The high school diploma and numerous industry certifications are credentials that often play a gatekeeping role for employment.   

Credentials are well-established in the Career and Technical Education (CTE) ecosystem of secondary education and within employment sectors requiring specific technical skills. The National Career Clusters Framework describes categories of CTE around which programs focus. Most CTE programs emphasize technical skills rather than core or transferable skills. Although transferable skills (such as communication, collaboration, leadership, and project management) are rarely evaluated, many recognize them as increasingly important for the workplace. Programs continue to evaluate core skills (like mathematics and literacy) through a list of courses and grades, and assess these via standards through national assessments. These measurements of core skills tend to be weak signals for long-term success. While over a million different credentials are available for learners from high school through employment, many are at a grain size that serves only as a proxy for skill assertion, rather than the assertion itself. 

During the 2019-20 school year, 49% of high schools students completed at least one CTE course while 19% were CTE concentrators (completing at least two courses in a single CTE pathway). Often embedded within CTE programs, pathways to credentialing include academy programs, internships, apprenticeship models, and whole-school models that incorporate some element of work-based learning—where students earn high school credit while embedded in the workplace.  

While there is a high level of interest around work-based learning, participation is low due to the complexity of implementation. Work-based learning is a particularly good way for students to develop a sense of purpose/career direction and authentically build both technical and transferable skills. Since work-based learning falls outside of traditional forms of measurement, it provides an opportunity for credentialing.

Additional work-based learning opportunities occur in postsecondary settings with certification programs in the community college system and internships in four-year degree programs. Throughout a career, certifications are available in some sectors for employees to continue learning and growing.

Despite the credentialing success of the CTE programs and the availability of credentials, the challenge remains around how to describe valuable (value-creating) capabilities around core, technical, and transferable competencies that are helpful to every learner and meaningful to higher education and the workforce.

Design Principles of New Pathways

Designing durable and powerful pathways requires a set of core design principles for continued calibration and iteration.

View Principles



Badges represent a variety of verifications within the ecosystem. Badges are often digital representations of skill assertions and may accumulate to a credential. Some organizations use badges as equivalent to credentials, meaning that a learner earns a badge when they demonstrate proficiency in a competency or set of competencies. Badges can also simply be digital graphics (or even physical assets) attached to student accomplishment. 


A set of core, technical, or transferable skills that demonstrates use of these skills across multiple contexts. Core competencies include areas typically evaluated in the K-12 sector (science, literacy, and mathematics). Technical competencies include those associated with specific industries (coding, healthcare, auto mechanics, etc.). Transferable competencies (also called durable or power skills) are those that apply across a wide variety of sectors and industries (collaboration, leadership, project management, etc.).

Verified Credential

Verified credentials result from a learner demonstrating proficiency around a pre-established set of competencies determined by the issuer. The owner or receiver can make their credentials accessible to any entity wanting to verify the learner’s competencies. Verification means that the credential can be validated by the issuer. Traditional education credentials include diplomas or certificates issued by higher education or a credentialing body. Future innovation around storage of credentials within digital wallets will simplify and decentralize this process.

Rupert Ward on Defining Badging Terms

Rupert Ward, a former Special Adviser and Project Lead for iDEA, one of the world’s most successful free educational technologies joined the Getting Smart Podcast to discuss badging and defined some helpful terms.

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