UPCEA Hallmarks of Excellence in Credential Innovation

The Hallmarks of Excellence in Credential Innovation are intended to be both aspirational and a practical toolkit to assist those in Online and Professional Continuing Education to think systematically and concretely about the nature of credentials at their institution as well as the strategy and logistical components of supporting learners throughout their lifetimes. These Hallmarks focus on alternative credentials, which includes certificates, micro-credentials, digital badges, or micro-certificates, signaling specific competencies, certification, and sometimes licensure. Use these Hallmarks to:
  • Assess your institution’s readiness for more flexible student learning opportunities
  • Plan for meeting workforce needs and employer demand in the new economy
  • Define roles and responsibilities required for an enterprise-wide effort to achieve credential excellence
  • Benchmark against key performance indicators
  • Generate revenue with quality credentialing programs and badges

Executive Summary

For more than a millennium, universities have awarded degrees to their graduates in much the same form as America’s academic institutions do today. Through their durability and credibility, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees have stood the test of time, sustaining their relevance and their power to convey academic accomplishment. In recent decades, though, new forms of credentials have expanded the portfolio of ways for recognizing educational achievement.

These “alternative credentials”—which include certificates, micro-credentials, digital badges, or micro-certificates—signal specific competencies, certification, and sometimes licensure. They took root in the armed forces, throughout financial and information technology professions, and in the shadows of conventional academic institutions. They grew because of the need for smaller, timely, and more focused educational components earned incrementally over a lifetime of learning and professional development. They have the potential to flourish because of the ubiquity of the internet—as a means of delivering education and now as a potential home for a digital record that tracks student accomplishment over a lifetime.

Even as universities have been steadfast in their dedication to traditional degrees, innovations in credentialing found a back door into academe. These new credentials are often prefixed by “non” (noncredit programs leading to nondegrees for nontraditional students) rather than defined by what they truly are: important, alternative means of acquiring education and university-based credentials. Nor is “alternative credentials” a phrase recognized by consumers or employers, or even within much of higher education itself. There is no standard definition or delineation of what is included under the umbrella of “alternative credentials.” Innovative leaders in online and professional continuing education have championed new models that design, deliver, and recognize shorter educational programs within their institutions. The growth of these programs suggests it is now time to find positive terminology and a clear identity to welcome them into the portfolio of university offerings.

This third set of Hallmarks of Excellence[1] focuses on these alternative credentials—through the innovative process, within the context of established universities and academic degrees, and in search of the ideals and integrity that should drive the growth of new forms of educational designations.

These Hallmarks of Excellence call for:

  • An idealistic, aspirational view of nontraditional credentials—alternative credentials should occupy a more central space, consistent with the values of their institutions, and integrate their universities with the concrete educational needs of employers and professions.
  • An entrepreneurial agility to bridge the needs of external constituents with the resources, reputation, and mission of traditional universities—alternative credentials should be inventive and responsive in ways that promote new programs, models, and recognition, thereby transporting their schools into new territory.
  • A self-conscious ethical focus that reflects the highest ideals of academic institutions and the greater purpose of innovation in credentialing—in a largely lawless environment, where alternative credentials could easily exploit the absence of accountability and consistency, there is an even greater imperative to exemplify a longer, larger, and lasting view of the importance of these initiatives.


Excellent Practices—Eight Pillars

Alternative credentials will help shape the reputation—and likely the future—of America’s universities. They will also shape the pivotal role of those in professional and continuing education within their institutions and communities, as they develop and promote new ways of bundling and certifying educational experiences. More importantly, these programs have the potential to impact our nation’s workforce in innumerable ways. What we do now will launch an expanded array of possibilities into the second academic millennium. Creating small programs could have large consequences.

We identify eight facets in leading credential innovation in traditional universities:

1. Advocacy and Leadership within the University

Recognizing that alternative credentials, by their very nature, challenge traditional settings, those leading efforts to expand credential offerings need to be adept and agile in defining and defending these in the languages, values, mission, and structures of academe—and potentially within a culture of skepticism.

2. Entrepreneurial Initiative

Recognizing that new forms of credentialing command imagination and investigation, risk-taking and respect for academic processes, and a skill set to manage change responsibly, those leading these efforts must have the drive and discipline to create new initiatives.

3. University-to-Business Stakeholder Engagement

Recognizing that new forms of credentialing cannot occur in an ivory tower, those leading these efforts must welcome employers, professions, and industries as partners; respond to their needs and objectives; and seek their ongoing involvement, and even expertise, in ways uncommon in traditional academe.

4. The Faculty Experience

Recognizing the role of subject-matter expertise in learning, those leading these efforts must identify and cultivate teaching talent—from within and beyond the academy—and ensure their success in traditional and online classrooms.

5. The Learner Experience

Recognizing that the learner might seek a swift, convenient, and even transactional relationship, those leading these efforts must design programs that are easily accessible and immediately valuable.

6. Digital Technology

Recognizing the need to bundle a lifetime of unique credentials and accomplishments, those leading these efforts must find new ways of verifying learning and enabling students to document their achievements.

7. External Advocacy and Leadership Beyond the University

Recognizing the ill-defined, unregulated, and poorly understood nature of alternative credentials, those leading these efforts must find external forums to educate consumers and other constituents on the value of alternative credentials by building awareness, appreciation, and, ultimately, consistency.

8. Professionalism

Recognizing the general lack of oversight and clarity in this dynamic phase, those leading these efforts have a unique historical opportunity to envision and embody exemplary professional standards of both excellence and integrity.


[1] Hallmarks of Excellence in Online Leadership and Hallmarks in Excellence in Professional and Continuing Education, sponsored by UPCEA: Leaders in Professional, Continuing, and Online Education.

UPCEA Hallmarks of Excellence in Credential Innovation

Special thanks to the contributors to the UPCEA Hallmarks of Excellence in Credential Innovation:

Rovy Branon, University of Washington
Susan Catron, University of California, Davis
Vickie Cook, University of Illinois at Springfield
Sean Gallagher, Northeastern University
Jay Halfond (chair), Boston University
George Irvine, University of Delaware
Peter Janzow, Credly
Jenni Murphy, California State University, Sacramento
Anne Reed, University at Buffalo-SUNY

Endorsements of the UPCEA Hallmarks of Excellence in Credential Innovation include:


View the other UPCEA Hallmarks: