What is the purpose of a credential, diploma, license, or certificate?

What is the purpose of a credential, diploma, license, or certificate? There are obviously many answers to this question. There is not a single answer. However, I’m increasingly convinced that this a question worth asking, helping us to better understand the perceptions, value, and limitations of credentials as a social currency. Perhaps it will help us navigate the growing conversations around alternative credentials, micro-credentialing and debates about the value of a college degree.

I have a stack of credentials, but what do they say about my current competence? I have a 6th grade diploma, 8th grade diploma, high school diploma, undergraduate diploma, and three graduate diplomas. Then I have a fair share of certificates, not to mention transcripts with coursework in well over a dozen disciplines from many Universities. I don’t write this to boast. In fact, I am doing the opposite, illustrating how little they say about my current competence.

So, what do each of these credentials say about me today? Can I still recall the facts required to pass the classes that led to my 6th grade diploma? Check out “Are you Smarter than a 5th Grader” and you have your answer.Do I still have the knowledge to easily reference Spinoza or Descartes based on my philosophy of perception class ten years ago? What about the computer information system courses that I took in the 1990s? I was once skilled at repairing 1990s computers or building them from scratch, but you do not want me tinkering with your 2014 laptop. And I was also good with network management of anything using Novell NetWare 4.0 or earlier, which doesn’t do me much good navigating any modern network. Or how about my certificate in online teaching and learning from eight years ago? Has anything changed with online learning in the last eight years?

Without persistent practice, time has a way of eroding knowledge and skill in many of these areas. Yet, that original credential is what goes on the résumé. I could have permanent memory loss and I still get to own those credentials, post them on my wall (or store them in my closet…my location of choice at the moment), and use them as evidence of my competence for current and future work.

But some credentials expire. You have to keep doing something to show that you still “have it.” That is true, and the rigor of re-certification varies significantly from one credential to another. Some do require a person to prove that they are still current. Most have simple professional development requirements: design a professional development plan and show your progress, or complete a certain number of CEUs or graduate credits in an accepted area. To keep up my teaching license, all I need to do is complete a background check, write a check to the state, and take 6 graduate credits in education or history. Or, more recent graduates have to design a professional development plan with goals and a demonstration what they learned. Either option can be a nice learning experience, but neither verifies current knowledge and skill. They simply show that you are doing something in an area relevant to your certification. This same thing is true in many professions, including a number of health fields.

Time does make a difference in how credentials are viewed. If you had a counseling degree from 1965 but had not practiced as a counselor since that time, it would have less perceived value…at least for those who cared to investigate. But that is part of my concern. How many people look at credentials with that measure of scrutiny? Employers do, but credentials tend to serve as signals that a person belongs to a class of educated, qualified, competent, or maybe even just intelligent. Depending upon the nature of the credential, they offer prestige and an entry ticket into certain groups.

Some credentials, like a medical license or even a driver’s license can’t be maintained in the presence of some factor that results in a person being unable to perform the tasks required of that license. For example, if I can’t pass the vision test, I get a limited license (requiring corrective eyewear) or I can’t get a license. Certain conditions might even exclude me from being eligible to drive. The same it true for other certifications and licenses, but it is not true for other credentials like diplomas. One reason is simply that driving when not able is far more dangerous than keeping a diploma posted on one’s wall. So, we see that we have different types of credentials, each with different standards.

If all credentials were really about verifying competence (a shorthand way of telling society that, “This person is qualified or educated.”), why isn’t it standard for us to have to conduct re-assessments every 3-5 years to maintain a credential? Considering this question and the potential answers is an important part of understanding and addressing the affordances and limitations of credentials in contemporary society. It helps us recognize how they are being used, abused, misrepresented, and leveraged for good.

  • How much of the answer to such questions is financial?
  • How much of it reveals that credentials are often fundamentally about something different from current capabilities and competence?
  • How might the answer help us make progress toward a culture that values competence above credentials, and that avoids unhelpful practices verging on credentialism?
  • How might the concept of micro-credentials help, hinder, or perpetuate the current limitations of credentials in society?