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Almost 1.1 million unique educational credentials exist in the U.S., according to a new tally mapping a sprawling web of certificates, badges, licenses, diplomas and the like — as well as who offers them.

The count comes in a report released Wednesday by the nonprofit Credential Engine, which is trying to improve the available information about learning and career pathways. The report sorted its estimated count of credentials into four buckets:

  • 350,412 from postsecondary institutions awarding degrees and certificates, down 9,301 from its 2021 tally.
  • 13,014 from MOOC providers awarding course completion certificates, microcredentials and online degrees from foreign universities, up by 3,624.
  • 656,753 from nonacademic providers spanning credentials like badges, course completion certificates, licenses, certifications and apprenticeships, an increase of 107,041.
  • 56,179 from secondary schools, including diplomas, alternative certificates and high school equivalency diplomas, up 7,260.

That total number of credentials, just shy of 1.08 million, is up dramatically from when Credential Engine started keeping track in April 2018. Back then, it identified 334,114 credentials.

The number of credentials identified has grown with each subsequent report: 738,428 in 2019, followed by 967,734 in 2021.

But newly launched credentials haven’t necessarily fueled that growth. The increase also reflects refined research techniques and new categories added to the count.

This year’s report is the first to recognize alternative high school completion certificates and high school equivalency awards, for example. Credential Engine said it used different data sources and found new ways to identify credentials or estimate how many exist. 

The wide range of credentials available in the marketplace may present upsides for students who don’t need or want a full degree, but who could enhance their job prospects by earning a certificate. 

In the face of enrollment challenges battering open-access institutions in particular, many higher education leaders also see opportunity in badges and stackable credentials, which can be layered on top of each other toward a traditional two- or four-year degree. They hope such flexible options can help entice time-pressed working and adult students to enroll.

But the complexity of the market is a major challenge to overcome. It can be difficult for students to understand the range of options available and find a quality program that’s likely to give them a return on their investment. Efforts to accredit career education options to provide quality assurance are scattered.

Credential Engine publishes its report in an effort to prompt college leaders and policymakers to improve data systems. The report received support from the Strada Education Network, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walmart Foundation.

“Investing in credential transparency is important to help people understand the various education and training pathways that lead to economic mobility,” Barbara Gellman-Danley, chair of the Credential Engine board, said in a statement. Gellman-Danley is also president of the Higher Learning Commision, a major accreditor.

Transparency is important for employers trying to understand different skills and for policymakers, Credential Engine’s CEO, Scott Cheney, said in a statement.

“Today’s education and training landscape is vast, complex and only continues to grow,” Cheney said. “That presents both massive opportunities — and profound risks — for individuals deciding where to spend their educational time and money.”