Most Ohio students aren’t earning industry credentials. Why?

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As Ohio’s high school diplomas erode in value, there will be a growing need for students to demonstrate knowledge and skills through other means. For many young Ohioans, earning a college degree will continue to be their passport to good-paying jobs. But with college completion rates hovering just above 30 percent, that leaves countless thousands without credentials that open doors to rewarding careers.  

Industry-recognized credentials can help fill this void. Around the nation, states are starting to see the value of credentials to both young people and employers. A joint paper from the CCSSO, Advance CTE, and New Skills for Youth highlights how three states are working to identify high-quality industry credentials and encouraging their accumulation. Florida, for instance, provides schools additional funding when students earn credentials, with amounts varying based on the type of certificate. Twenty-six states also include industry credentials in their accountability systems, giving schools all the more reason to help students earn them.

Ohio, too, has implemented a framework for industry credentials in thirteen career-and-technical career fields. Some credentials verify in-demand skills in HVAC, Auto CAD, Cisco routing, agribusiness, and Adobe graphic design. Yet others, such as manicurist or Microsoft Word certifications, likely have less value. A committee, appointed by the state superintendent, approves the credentials students may earn.[1] Ohio assigns points to each credential—ranging from one to twelve—based on the rigor and time needed to obtain it. Completing an apprenticeship also yields twelve points in this system.

Earning credentials is also one of the state’s main pathways to high school graduation. To use this pathway, students must earn twelve points in the same career field, finish standard coursework requirements, and pass the WorkKeys exam. Similarly, students accruing twelve points allows schools to earn credit on the Prepared for Success component of their state report cards.

Given the increasing importance of industry credentials, it’s worth diving into what we know about students’ attainment of them. Figure 1 below offers a birds-eye view, showing that a paltry 4 percent—that’s right, 4 percent—of Ohio students meet the twelve-point credentialing mark before they exit high school. The chart also shows that rural students are most likely to earn credentials (7 percent), possibly reflecting the fact that agriculture is the most popular career-technical field in Ohio. Meanwhile, in suburban and urban areas, rates fall below the statewide average.

Figure 1: Industry credentialing rates in Ohio, statewide and by district typologies

Source: Ohio Department of Education, Download Data (District Prepared for Success file). Note: The rates in this chart indicate the percentage of classes of 2016 and 2017 (including non-graduates) who earned twelve or more points in Ohio’s industry credentialing system. The chart displays data broken out by the typology of the district that students attended.

Another way to slice the data is to examine how many career-and-technical education (CTE) concentrators are earning credentials. The figure below displays the credentialing rates—referring again to meeting the twelve-point threshold—for such students. There’s some good and bad news. First the bad: We see that only 21 percent of CTE concentrators earn industry credentials. That seems low. But the good news is that rates are on the upswing in recent years. Note that while we can see the overall credentialing rates by typology (figure 1), we can’t do the same thing for concentrators because their data is reported on the report cards of career-and-technical planning districts which are not assigned a typology.

Figure 2: Credentialing rates among Ohio CTE concentrators, 2015–16 to 2017–18

Source: Ohio Department of Education: Download Data (CTPD Ratings files). Note: The data notes under figure 1 apply to this chart, except that this figure displays the percentage of CTE “concentrators”—students who have completed at least 50 percent of the required coursework in a CTE field—who meet the twelve-point credentialing mark.

This analysis raises the question: Why aren’t more students—especially more CTE concentrators—earning credentials? Part of the answer is that some CTE fields don’t lead directly to a credential. Though it’s not clear how many career pathways this applies to, the business, finance, and marketing cluster is an example of fields in which professional certifications are generally inaccessible to high school students. Still, many fields do have aligned credentials, so let’s consider a few more theories.

Lack of awareness. Students may not know much about credentialing opportunities, or the value of earning them. While not speaking directly to the topic of credentials, a 2016 Ohio Department of Education report suggests that this may be a problem, writing: “The number one reason students cite for not engaging in career-focused coursework is that they don't know enough about these options.”  

Cost of credentialing exams. Credentialing programs usually require students to pass an exam, some of which are expensive to take. For instance, the Cisco routing and switching exams cost $300 and welding certification exams top $500. Fortunately, the state covers exam costs for low-income students, but fees might discourage others from earning a credential.

Students are unprepared. Another possibility is that students are not ready for rigorous credentialing programs and struggle to complete the course of study or fall short on exams. Unfortunately, there are no available data about program persistence or exam passage rates, so we don’t know how many students pursued but did not ultimately earn a credential. Still, a lack of readiness may contribute to low credentialing rates.

Limited capacity among schools and employers. It takes instructors with special backgrounds, along with financial resources, to adequately prepare and train students to earn credentials. Due to these constraints, career-tech centers and school districts typically offer a limited number of credentialing programs. This likely leaves some students without access to credentialing opportunities. In a similar vein, employers or trade associations may not have the excess capacity needed to offer students robust apprenticeships.


The time is ripe for Ohio to promote industry credentialing to more students. But policymakers also need to clear barriers that may be getting in the way. A few ideas to prime the pump could include incentive funding for schools that help students earn high-value credentials (à la Florida and Colorado); financial aid to cover all students’ credentialing exam fees; and tax credits for employers when students complete an apprenticeship. Boosting industry credentials is a great opportunity for Ohio. Let’s not let it slip by.

[1] The appointed committee began approving industry credentials in January 2018; previously, the State Board of Education approved credentials (House Bill 49 of the 132nd General Assembly required this change).


Aaron Churchill
Aaron Churchill is the Ohio Research Director of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.