Empowering Today’s Learners and Workers with Due Credentials

By Lara Couturier and Christine Flanagan -

As COVID-19 continues to impact students, teachers, families, colleges and universities across the country, HCM Strategists is working to provide essential thought leadership on the range of issues in the field of education.

Our expert policy staff has launched a new series to identify emerging education policy ideas and practices aimed at addressing COVID-19. Stay tuned for more in HCM’s new series addressing COVID-19 concerns in education, and use #EdAfterCOVID19 to join the conversation on social media. Read more

Lara K. Couturier is a principal at HCM Strategists and Christine Flanagan is the president of Kinetic Seeds.



The COVID-19 crisis has produced record levels of unemployment, disrupted student learning on an unprecedented scale and laid bare the structural racism that leads to highly inequitable outcomes in areas such as health, education and economic opportunity. Even before the current crisis, today’s students and workers learned in all kinds of ways, places and contexts. In the aftermath of COVID-19, that will be even more true as they pick up the pieces by taking classes online, enrolling in institutions that are new to them, pursuing short-term credentials such as digital badges and taking jobs that offer embedded training.

To rebound from COVID-19 and guard against the deepening inequities by race and income that many experts are forecasting, the country will need to quickly and affordably get students and workers back into jobs and education. To do so, a key strategy for policymakers will be empowering today’s learners and workers as quickly and efficiently as possible with the credentials they are due. Under the current system, however, students and workers all too often do not get credit for their learning experiences, which stymies the economy, frustrates employers that are searching for workers with postsecondary credentials and undercuts the values of opportunity and upward mobility that undergird our nation’s democracy. 

Jennifer is a case in point. A 31-year old mother, Jennifer was recently laid off from her full-time job due to cutbacks in the wake of COVID-19. Like approximately 36 million other adults in the U.S., Jennifer started college and stopped out.[i] She completed 36 credits before she left to provide for her family. In the intervening years, she got a good job in the IT department at a local bank and took two training courses that promised six more college credits.

In late 2019, Jennifer made the decision to go back to school and complete her bachelor’s degree in cybersecurity. However, an admissions counselor at the local four-year, public university told her they would only apply eight credits of the 42 she completed toward her degree program. Jennifer did everything that was asked of her. She enrolled in college, passed her courses and took advantage of employer-offered training. Despite her efforts, she would still start back at square one. Losing 34 credits is the equivalent of more than a year of coursework and, at today’s average public four-year tuition, more than $10,000.[ii]

Jennifer is typical of today’s learners and workers. In 2020, students often enroll later in life, support families while earning a degree and bring a wide array of personal and professional experiences with them to learning after high school. As the illustration below depicts, large numbers of today’s learners are enrolling in college courses while still in high school; stopping out and coming back; taking some courses online; participating in digital badging and Massively Open Online Courses; and maneuvering through several colleges and universities on their way to a degree. Furthermore, the nation’s workforce is fueled by many non-college educated workers who have learned the skills necessary for transitioning into higher-wage occupations, but are overlooked for career advancement because of degree requirements.[iii]



Many would describe such a learning journey as an “alternative pathway.” It looks different from traditional notions of entering college right out of high school and pursuing a linear set of courses at one institution. But as these data make clear, this learning experience was in fact the norm long before COVID-19 displaced millions of students and workers. 

Unfortunately, the challenge Jennifer faces is also all too common. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, students who transfer lose, on average, more than 40 percent of the credits they’ve earned.[iv]

As the nation grapples with the economic repercussions of COVID-19, policymakers will need to address the system’s chronic undervaluation of learning. How can we do a better job of assessing on-the-job earned skills, evaluating diverse learning experiences, creating affordable credential pathways and efficiently connecting more learners to high-quality careers? This question is more urgent now than ever before. 


Valuing learning is more urgent now than ever as the nation grapples with the realities of COVID-19, such as massive job loss, colleges closing on short notice, new financial pain for families, and a class of high school seniors uncertain about their futures. 


The good news is, there is excellent work already underway at many levels, such as:

  • The US Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s workforce development program Talent Pipeline Management Academy, which enables educational institutions to develop responsive, high-demand programs by ensuring employers are communicating their hiring needs effectively and in real-time.[v]
  • The Clayton Christensen Institute’s recent recommendation to develop a parallel system of third-party credentialing and licensing organizations that certify learning and have government support.[vi] 
  • Minnesota’s South Central College, which built an online tool to help students input their prior learning and work experiences and track their credits, and provides automatic credit for industry-recognized credentials in advanced manufacturing and healthcare.[vii] 
  • Credential Engine’s registry which provides timely, searchable information about all kinds of credentials and seeks to facilitate credential comparability.[viii] 

We must design for today’s realities and put equitable outcomes first. Learners and workers need a modernized system that empowers them with proper attribution of their learning and experiences, rather than sending them back to square one. As a nation, we have a better understanding of where people are learning today. What we don’t have is a system that values that learning by awarding due credentials that connect students like Jennifer to the jobs they deserve, and our economy—now crippled by COVID-19—so desperately needs.

This blog seeks to elevate a discussion about how students learn today. We will build on this theme through further blogs that deepen the conversation about why portability of learning and applicability of credit are strong levers for increasing equity, building affordable pathways, and meeting workforce needs.







[i] National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, Some College, No Degree: A 2019 Snapshot for the Nation and 50 States, 2019, https://nscresearchcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/SCND_Report_2019.pdf 
[ii] College Board, Trends in College Pricing, 2019, https://research.collegeboard.org/pdf/2019-trendsincp-fig-6.pdf
[iii] Opportunity@Work and Accenture, Reach for the STARs: Realizing the Potential of America’s Hidden Talent Pool, 2020, https://opportunityatwork.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Opportunity-At-Work-Report-Reach-for-the-STARs-FINAL.pdf 
[iv] U.S. Government Accountability Office, Students Need More Information to Help Reduce Challenges in Transferring College Credits, 2017, https://www.gao.gov/assets/690/686530.pdf
[v] US Chamber of Commerce Foundation, “Talent Pipeline Management Initiative,” Accessed April 2020, https://www.uschamberfoundation.org/talent-pipeline-management 
[vi] Michael B. Horn and Richard Price, Creating Seamless Credit Transfer: A Parallel Higher Ed System to Support America Through and Beyond the Recession, Christensen Institute, April 2020, https://www.christenseninstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Credit-Transfer-2.pdf 
[vii] New America Foundation, Connecting Adults to College with Credit for Prior Learning, 2019, https://www.newamerica.org/education-policy/reports/lessons-adapting-future-work-prior-learning-assessment/
[viii] Credential Engine, “About Us,” Accessed April 2020, https://credentialengine.org/about/
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