Credential or Certificate

I continue to think about what we mean by a “degree.” Or rather, I think about what a degree might or should mean, and what we in higher ed increasingly act as if it means, and how that disjunction (if it is one, which I think it is) plays out across our practices, our assumptions, our mission statements, and our civic life. (I’m sure I’ve left out several crucial areas there.)

My thoughts are spurred by a conversation I had several days ago with a colleague who wanted to know what kind of certificate we might offer as an incentive for open participants to complete a cMOOC. I started thinking about the difference between a certificate and a credential. I talked about credentials many years ago in a presentation I podcast here. At the time, though, I simply urged we recall the root meaning of credential, a word that derives from credence, the mark of believability and the grounds for trust we stipulate as a result of some experience or, perhaps, a formation of character we have collectively witnessed.

I didn’t then have the contrast, though, that would drive the point home. I think now the contrast is between “credential,” a condition of being, and “certificate,” something that is not of a person so much as about some specific competency the person has demonstrated. I grant that I am skeptical of any education that focuses narrowly on “competency,” as if skills could be divorced from contexts, or ideas, or personhood. I grant that my skepticism may lead me to exaggerate the distinction I’m trying to make. Yet the distinction may prove useful in articulating how two views might diverge, an what the consequences might be.

Incorrigible and largely unrepentant English professor that I am, I went on an etymology hunt. R. W. Emerson observed that language is fossil poetry, so it was time for some paleontology. I usually go to the Oxford English Dictionary for my etymologies, for there I will also find a useful set of historical definitions that help chart how early usage changes over time. Tonight, though, I had only my iPad with me at dinner. (I try to travel lighter at conferences when possible–I’m writing this post from the annual meeting of the AAC&U.) I have long known how to use Google to define a word: simply type in the search box “define x” (without quotation marks and with a word where the x goes, of course), and away you go. On a lark, and because Google is always introducing cool new things on the sly (aside from tracking its users, that is), I typed “etymology credential” — and here’s what came up!


Ah. The word was first an adjective, and only later became a noun. First a descriptor, then the thing it described. Alas, the thing described, a credential document, seems to have skipped the possible middle sense of a quality or virtue. Instead, a credential, a trustworthiness or recommendation, is typically reduced to that piece of paper we call a diploma–in other words, a certificate.


As “credential” moves toward “certficate,” “recommendation” becomes “document,” indeed an “official document” attesting to facts, records, achievements, ownership. I’m not arguing that facts, records, achielvement, and ownership are unimportant. Not at all. They’re vital. But taken outside the context of trust, of personhood, of recommendation, credentials edge toward a kind of “guarantee,” or a license. Something transformative becomes  instead flat and transactional. Get a certificate, get a raise, get a job. Yes, and those are important, But what of the person?

I continue to mull these things over. A small shift in meaning may lead to a large and potentially regrettable shift in civic and cultural practice. I am especially struck by this possibility in the aftermath of the challenging and fascinating opening forum tonight at the AAC&U meeting.

And I think of the words we say at our higher education commencement ceremonies when it comes time to award to–or is it confer upon?–our students their degrees: we deans present our degree candidates to the President, and say that we are doing so upon the “recommendation of the faculty.” In that moment, deep within that phrase and yet still visible if one knows to look, we may still find what is most valuable about a truly credential education.

3 thoughts on “Credential or Certificate

  1. There may also be something to the history around the etymology. If I’m not mistaken, Roman jurisprudence of the late Republic(and possibly beyond) was based not on empirical evidence but on “character witness” testimony. The higher the class (the longer a witness’s family had been patrician), the better the testimony, to the point where some impoverished noble families made much of their income by speaking out in favor of defendants they barely knew. In that sense, “credentia” comes from a culture that valued the status and prestige of a person much more highly than the statements that person might utter, and by analogy fits a more traditional understanding of degrees that derive their merit from the reputation of the conferring school rather than the skills and abilities of the graduating student.

  2. @Jason Thanks for your comment. The credential witnesses you describe in patrician Roman society certainly represent an abuse of the idea of credence and make a mockery of the idea of trust. That said, status and prestige may also derive from reasonable and even praiseworthy sources. Sometimes the statements a person utters will gather deserved renown and open up areas of beneficial influence. Also, I believe character witnesses are still called to the stand as evidence, even today, though the US regulates this kind of evidence (as it does others of course). The potential for abuse continues to be acknowledged. ,

    My larger point is that a degree can and should represent something more than an accumulated set of marks on exams. The degree can and should be “credential” because it represents the accumulated testimony of expert learners who have worked with the candidate and recommend that candidate for the degree. Partly of course this is a question of what counts as evidence of any kind. It’s also true that neither empirical evidence nor character witness is necessarily immune to abuse.

    It won’t surprise you when I also say that while skills and abilities are of course very important, they do not by themselves define the full mission or promise of education, at least as those words are typically used in the discourse I read about competency-based education, workforce preparation, etc. I myself would be reluctant to award an academic degree solely on the basis of a GED- or AP-like exam. A certificate would be another matter, probably.

    Thanks for stopping by!

  3. This is a central dilemma of education I’ve been thinking about for years now. For those with a poor understanding of education, such as legislators and many employers, the degree serves as a useful proxy for what they think an education confers. Of course, as you point out, this risks becoming transactional in nature and misses the larger gifts that education brings. Ironically, it is usually those more intangible elements that dictate whether or not someone is successful in a job or career. I know many people with pieces of paper who are functionally incapable of responding to change or unexpected situations, for instance, because they have been trained on what is rather than what could be.

    As a political scientist who is now a college administrator responsible for technology, I have strayed far from what my credentials supposedly dictate. That is because I have constantly relied on the intangible elements of what my über liberal arts education bestowed on me. I’ve also never stopped learning (another key trait from that buffet of learning that is a liberal arts education). However, I don’t have “credentials” to do the job I am doing. This worries me at times but then I look at what benefit I might get from going out and getting those “credentials” and they are marginal at best.

    I look at my students, and even more so my own children, and wonder what I should be telling them to do. There are two worlds emerging today: The more traditional one that values who you are based on pieces of paper and the Silicon Valley-inspired one that values what you can do more than what you are. Google increasingly doesn’t care about “credentials” in their hiring process. They want to know what you can bring to the company – how well-trained your brain is. A piece of paper doesn’t necessarily demonstrate that. However, I think Google is still very much the exception to the rule even if it may be the trend of the future. The question is how long this kind cultural transformation will take (or if it is a false start).

    We’re trying some new things at HCC to complement the traditional paper degree plans. They’re just getting off the ground and a lot of people are having trouble wrapping their heads around concepts such as a MakerSpace (“Can you run Workforce programs out of that thing?”) or a Collaboratorium (“How many sections will you teach in there?”). We’ll see how things go but it should be an interesting few years as we spool these things up. The one thing they have in common is that they really aren’t focused so much on credentialing as they are on creating unexpected opportunities for learning and growth

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *