It is now widely understood that the United States cannot reach its degree attainment goals using only traditional milestones such as associate, baccalaureate, or graduate degrees. This problem has profound implications for national competitiveness and a democratic society. While it is true that there has been a recent proliferation of alternative credentials such as certificates, badges, and endorsements, the transformative potential of this development has been severely limited by the absence of a common ”currency” that is recognized by employers, academics, and students alike as having value.

For 101 years, UPCEA’s members have expanded access to higher education by offering programs in alternative times, locations, and formats, and they have pioneered what might now be called “alternative credentials.” In 2015, strategic conversations in UPCEA led Association leaders to explore ways in which the Association could spur the development of a new system of alternative credentials that would be widely understood and embraced, especially focusing on skills valued by employers. A blue ribbon panel met in Chicago to discuss options and directions.

One member of the panel was Kevin Corcoran, a strategy director at the Lumina Foundation. Kevin explained that at times the Lumina Foundation supports national contests to foster innovation, and he thought that a contest to spur innovation in alternative credentialing would be an appropriate way to encourage entrepreneurs from within and outside of higher education to propose new approaches to alternative credentialing.

A plan was developed, The Lumina Foundation provided $10,000 prize money for the contest, and InnoCentive, an organization that facilitates crowd-sourced solutions to problems, helped implement the contest (InnoCentive, 2016). The plan called for contest entries to focus on prototypes of credentials that signal to employers in clear, verifiable ways that holders know how to communicate effectively in the workplace. The focus on a single skill was intended to help contestants focus their proposals, and communication was chosen as the skill because every employer regardless or industry needs workers who communicate well.

Forty-four individuals, institutions, and organizations submitted entries to the contest. A nine-person review committee was established, and each proposal was blind-reviewed. The proposals were ranked, and the leading 10 proposals were blind-reviewed for a second time. Proposals were evaluated on the basis of six criteria: scalability, portability, transferability, compatibility with other skills, verifiability by employers, and strategic rationale.

There were a number of very creative and innovative proposals, but the clear winner came from Brandman University. The staff at Brandman developed a digital badging constellation utilizing five frameworks that are universally recognized across institutions and disciplines: Degree Qualification Profile (DQP), Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) LEAP Essential Learning Outcomes, AAC&U VALUE rubrics, Department of Labor’s Occupation Information Network (O*NET), and workforce-driven advisory boards. These frameworks result in badges defined by sources beyond an individual university’s perspective and that use commonly understood language and standards.

The UPCEA contest was an important step in highlighting the importance of alternative credentials. Moreover, it helped spur innovative thinking about how to create a common model for credentials that don’t fit the traditional degree framework. Work continues at UPCEA on the next steps in this process, and the Lumina Foundation also continues to work on finding a common structure for alternative credentials. One key project of the Lumina Foundation is the Connecting Credentials framework that “uses competencies – what the learner knows and is able to do – as common reference points to help understand and compare the levels and types of knowledge and skills that underlie degrees, certificates, industry certifications, licenses, apprenticeships, badges and other credentials.” (Lumina Foundation, 2016) UPCEA will provide members with more information about UPCEA initiatives in alternative credentialing as soon as it is available.



InnoCentive, I. (2016). Retrieved from InnoCentive:

Lumina Foundation. (2016, June 23). Connecting Credentials: A Beta Credentials Framework. Retrieved from Lumina Foundation:


David Schejbal is Dean of Continuing Education, Outreach and E-learning in University of Wisconsin-Extension. He is the past UPCEA president, serves on the board of the Competency-Based Education Network (CBEN), is a member of the board of visitors of the Army War College, a commissioner for the American Council on Education, and a member of the Council of Environmental Deans and Directors.