The Digital Credential Story: Pathway to Innovation – Part 1

It’s no secret that the world is still a mix of analog processes and digital expectations, and the tools needed to carry us into the future are often stuck in the past. Case in point: credentials. Although people conduct much of their lives online, the tools learners need to achieve their personal and professional goals – transcripts, certificates, diplomas and other credentials – are still on paper.

In this 2-part story, we first explain how the function of credentials has realized a meaningful shift over the last 20 years. Part 2 follows with our description of how the form of credentials has evolved as well, leading to a more comprehensive record of a learner’s accomplishments.

Shifting views on credentials

A growing number of learners, academic institutions and employers are recognizing the importance of credentials for accessing opportunities, admissions and talent management. Today, these are key areas driving the transition from paper to digital.

Thus, attitudes towards credentials are undergoing a transformation, shifting to one that is more modern and understands the full potential of these documents. In addition to bringing the credential experience online – specifically, to the internet – Parchment has seen that employers are relying on credentials in a way the academic world didn’t expect. Instead of serving simply as a sign of completed courses or degree programs, credentials are now used by hiring departments to understand potential new hire capabilities.

Rising use of electronic transcripts

Electronic transcripts rose alongside the use of computers in schools, albeit at a slower rate, with a goal of improving operational efficiency. The first paper on such transcripts was published in 1997, and much of the past 15 years has been spent simply transitioning from paper to pdf, from in office ordering to ecommerce and from paper delivery to secure PDFs. Thus, we’ve only begun to explore full potential of digital credentials in the past few years.

Around 2015, only three years ago, learners, schools and employers began to realize that eTranscripts needed to change. Companies and students, seemingly simultaneously, realized credentials were a tool for employment. Hiring managers used them to evaluate potential hires, while students used them to prove their skills and accomplishments.

Yet, digital credentials in the form of secure PDFs weren’t getting the job done. These documents were still designed for use within academic institutions and simply tracked courses and credits. While they do a fine job inventorying courses and credits for admissions, those credentials fell short for employers and most importantly, learners themselves.

Innovating the record

As students and employers began expecting more from higher education and the records it produced, Parchment stepped in to fill in the gaps. Driven by a heightened focus on outcomes, specifically regarding employment and the labor market, Parchment recognized that digital had to be about innovating the record itself. Thus, credentials needed to:

  • Increase the information contained within so that they more accurately reflected students’ capabilities
  • Convert a format that was more visual, customizable and accessible for both learners and receivers

While moving credentials from digital to paper is relatively straightforward (thanks in part to Parchment), rethinking the content and format of those records is far more difficult.

It seems like it would be easy for schools and other institutions to add details like volunteer activities, study abroad programs, internships, extracurriculars and non-degree classes to student transcripts and certificates, granting them access to a comprehensive summary of their education and skill sets. Yet trying to align the content and format of these additions to meet modern student and employer expectations required some effort on the backend before issuers could offer credentials in a secure, authenticated digital format.

Growing impact of digital credentials

Even in 2015, the potential of digital credentials was something many students, job seekers and businesses were excited about, despite the fact that this wasn’t yet ubiquitous. According to a Parchment survey, 71 percent of students believed digital options could make them more marketable to potential employers, giving them an advantage in the competitive job market.

In fact, some students were willing to go out of their way to get digital copies: 17 percent went through the trouble of scanning a printed credential onto a computer. Although this number was small, it indicated that eTranscripts and similar digital assets had value. What’s more, the majority of students agreed the concept of scanning credentials was perfectly fine, indicating an acceptance of digital formats.

Registrars were also getting on board with the idea of digital credentials. The majority – 78 percent – believed students sharing their records in such a format would be inevitable, and 41 percent said they were “somewhat to very likely” to offer digital options within five years.

A key word in that statistic is “sharing,” which begs the question: Sharing with whom? As noted earlier, transcripts were originally designed only for sharing between school departments and institutions. Yet as we’ve seen, students were sending – or at least attempting to send – their transcripts outside of academia. It’s clear that the format of credentials needed to evolve to meet the needs of these new recipients, and digital was the perfect answer for innovation.

That said, true adoption of digital credentials was still in its infancy at the time. Of those who received an eTranscript, only 37 percent downloaded and saved a copy. This modest rate might have been due to the majority of student not knowing what to do with their digital copies, or they were  unsure if schools or employers would accept them.

Tying digital credentials to job market

As of 2017, students are fully aware of the increasing importance of credentials – particularly their usefulness in the job market. Many positions – particularly those in white-collar fields – require more advanced education than they did in the previous years. In fact, research found 65 percent of jobs today require an advanced degree of some kind. Additionally, a survey from CareerBuilder found employers are raising the educational requirements for various positions. Forty-one percent now hire college graduates for positions that had previously been held by people with high school degrees. Similarly, 33 percent are hiring people with master’s degrees for roles that were filled by someone with a bachelor’s.

Why this trend? According to CareerBuilder, employers said the skills associated with these roles have become more complex.

Additionally, learners – millennials in particular – switch jobs more frequently than prior generations. Research found the average millennial will have 15 different jobs over his or her lifetime. This likely means they’ll need to rely more heavily on their credentials than their parents did, which will require greater access to more information.

This information leads to a very important question: How can credentials evolve to accurately convey learners’ potential and make them into more attractive candidates to graduate schools and employers?

In part 2 of The Credential Story, we discuss how the evolution of digital credentials has led to the creation of the Comprehensive Learner Record.

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