#AskExcelinEd: How can states measure a high-quality career pathway?

Louisiana, Tennessee

Not many people know this, but watching states compete to see which will have the highest percentage of students complete the FAFSA is quite the sporting event (especially this year when there were no real sports for quite a while there). For the past few years, Tennessee and Louisiana have been in a nail-biting neck and neck race. I love a good healthy competition, especially when “losing” still means great things for students. After all, students who complete the FAFSA are more likely to seamlessly enroll in college.

Education Strategy Group’s (ESG) recent report From Head to Tails: Building Momentum for Postsecondary Success highlights FAFSA completion as one of eight “momentum metrics” educators can leverage to support students’ postsecondary outcomes. According to ESG, these metrics represent the most predictive indicators of postsecondary preparation, retention, and success. They include:

  • 9th Grade GPA
  • Potential for Advanced Coursework
  • High-Quality Pathway Participation
  • College Application
  • FAFSA Completion
  • College Match
  • Seamless Enrollment
  • Gateway Completion Course

By capturing and analyzing these metrics, states, districts and schools can provide targeted supports to ensure more students are on-track—and remain on-track—to enter a postsecondary program. We agree that data such as these are critical to understanding how well students and programs are performing.

FAFSA completion, like some of the other metrics, is readily available, clear-cut data. High-quality pathways, on the other hand, stands out as one of the harder metrics for which states often struggle to ensure quality.

Credential Attainment: A Supplemental Measurement for High-Quality Pathways

The From Tails to Heads report defines the high-quality pathways metric like this: “of students who participate in career and technical education (CTE) coursework, the percentage that concentrate in an in-demand pathway, as defined by regional labor market data.” But as the report points out, states struggle to align CTE courses and coursework to in-demand pathways.

ExcelinEd, in partnership with Burning Glass Technologies, has examined the alignment of student obtained credentials to workforce demand in CredentialsMatter.org. When this project analyzed credential attainment data from the 30 states that were able to provide it, it found that most of the credentials K-12 students earn aren’t required by the workforce.

Credential attainment and CTE concentrators are not a direct 1:1 match, because students may concentrate and not sit for or obtain an industry-recognized credential. Yet these Credentials Matter findings provide important data for states to use when considering how to improve not only credential offerings but also CTE pathways.

Nationally, Credentials Matter found that no state is highly aligned with workforce demand. Only three credentials—Microsoft Office Specialist, Adobe Certified Associate and Automotive Service Excellence Certification—appear on both the top 10 credentials earned list and the top 10 credentials demanded list. And six of the top 10 credentials K-12 students earn are very over-supplied. These findings highlight the fact that many students are earning over-supplied, or not demanded, credentials. Education systems and students have invested substantial time and resources into earning credentials that, regrettably, won’t help open the doors they had hoped.

States can take steps to help ensure future investments are channeled toward credentials that set up students for success in postsecondary and the workforce. To accomplish this, we recommend states consider the following recommendations.

Let’s Do This Together

The era of COVID-19 is bringing additional challenges for many students as they consider credential, postsecondary and employment options. Our report, Credentials Matter: A COVID-19 Case Study, digs into the short-term changes in credential demand based on the economic ramifications of COVID-19. We found that pandemic related decline in job postings between March and May 2020 varied across career clusters. Arts, A/V Technology & Communications saw a job posting decline of nearly 50% whereas Architecture & Construction as well as Transportation, Distribution & Logistics both fell less than 30%.

These uncertain times make the momentum metrics even more important to help build a strong foundation for students to leverage when taking the next step toward postsecondary and career success.

A FAFSA completion competition is just the start. Let’s get an “in-demand credentials earned” competition going. Game on states, game on.

About Credentials Matter

Credentials Matter is an ongoing research partnership between ExcelinEd and Burning Glass Technologies designed to shed light on the landscape of industry credential data collection and alignment across the country. The project provides insight into how industry credentials earned by students align with workforce demand in each state to inform education system improvements and state data collection practices. Visit CredentialsMatter.org to explore interactive maps and data tables and learn more about this research.

Credentials Matter was made possible through the support of Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors.

Solution Areas:

College & Career Pathways


Career and Technical Education, COVID-19, Credentials Matter

About the Author

Adriana Harrington is the Director of Innovation Policy for ExcelinEd.

Solution Areas:

College & Career Pathways, School Accountability