By Tracy Petrillo, EdD, CAE
Learning throughout adulthood is a keystone to professional practice. Although each profession has its own specialized set of knowledge, skills and abilities, the basic tenets of andragogy apply across all practices areas. The establishment of practice standards and competency domains provides a foundation for the profession and a framework for continuing education. Assessment of knowledge and skills competency serve as the basis for many certifications and credentialing programs. The highest caliber of such certification programs requires rigorous assessment and extensive accreditation standards with certification agencies found at the local, state and national levels (Thomas, 2014). However, few credentialing agencies assess their value proposition on a regular basis.
A body of research conducted over the past decade evaluated the value of certification within professional practice disciplines, including: the certificate in research administration; the American Translators Association; and public procurement practitioners (Lung Jan Chan, 2009; Prier, 2010; Roberts, 2005). The studies varied in method and intent but identified important variables for career value and enhancement, plus intrinsic and extrinsic motivators. Certifications should consider the purpose to various stakeholders when determining value, such as “the earner, the issuer and the observer, (who) have roles to play in cultivating a [credentialing] ecosystem” (Finkelstein, Knight & Manning, 2013, p. 17). Value proposition research can demonstrate tangible benefits of certification and credentialing (Knapp & Knapp, 2012; Muenzen, 2013).
A Research Case Study: The Certified Association Executive
Within the association management practice area, the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) established the Certified Association Executive (CAE) credential in 1960 to prepare and support executives to develop and maintain professional competencies. By 2015, ASAE represented more than 21,462 association executives and industry partners from over 8,847 organizations. Certification is currently recognized by 4,238 individuals holding the CAE credential, June 2017 compared to 4,125 in June 2015. In addition to qualifying practice based experience and documented prior learning hours, CAE credential earners pass an assessment of knowledge and practice principles in nine content domains that indicate the overarching competencies for association professionals.
Association professionals have little published research to document the value of the CAE certification program. Prior to a study conducted in the 1990s, association management was considered “a soft profession with no codified body of knowledge” (Becker & Montgomery, 1995, p. 222). The research report defined domains and subdomains of practice and provided the CAE commission with empirically based data to improve the certification process and exam. By 2010, the CAE program earned accreditation from the National Commission for Certifying Agencies, and the program’s competency domains undergo review every five years. One internal study conducted on the value of the CAE was completed by the ASAE Foundation (Killiam, 2014) and the 1,964 responses determined the following: “very little is being offered to individuals to incentivize or reward the pursuit of professional credentials” (p. 5) and “the most important individual benefit to current CAEs is enhancing their knowledge of the association profession” (p. 12). This limited research within the association professional’s community indicated the need for further and richer study.
As a doctoral research study, mixed methods research explored the problem that a limited number of association professionals have attained certification to enhance their knowledge, build their competence and demonstrate their advanced practice abilities. The purpose was to investigate the perceived value and impact of certification for association professionals in preparing candidates to fill a well-documented, approaching leadership gap within nonprofit organizations.
The decision to obtain a certification involves time, commitment to learning, and often a cost to the individual or employer. Research has demonstrated that individuals seek credentials at various times in their careers for both internal and external motivation factors, including career enhancement, prestige, recognition and salary. As association professionals consider the value of obtaining the CAE credential, the study results provide a deeper picture into the qualifications of highly-trained individuals who are prepared and ready to serve their communities of practice as exemplars and next generation leaders.
The Quantitative Research
The California Society of Association Executives (CalSAE), based in Roseville, California, serves a statewide membership of over 1,400 individuals working within hundreds of organizations. Although the organization offers two membership categories — association professionals and industry partners — this study surveyed 588 association professionals that included 112 who held the CAE credential at the time of the research.
Survey methodology utilized the Perceived Value of Certification Tool© (PVCT) with permission and demographic questions. A response rate of 23.8 percent was achieved with 140 returned surveys from a population of 71 percent female and 29 percent males of whom 45.7 percent held the CAE (n=64). Of the 76 individuals who did not hold the CAE, 59.5 percent (n=44) expressed interest in working toward the credential.
Columns displayed in Table 1 represent total respondents, those who held the CAE, and those who did not hold the CAE. The high rated intrinsic item was “indicates professional growth” from 95 percent of total participants. The highest valued extrinsic item at 89.3 percent of total was “promotes recognition from peers.” Intrinsic “evidence of accountability” and “enhances professional autonomy” rated lowest. Very important extrinsic findings for the lowest perceived value items “increases salary” and “increases consumer confidence.” This result indicates that less than half of the study sample deemed value from salary increase nor consumer impact. Credentialing agencies and organizations should monitor using claims for perceived prestige and positive financial impact unless research has validated those variables.
Comparisons, using t-tests, determined mean scores between those who did and those who did not hold the CAE credential. No significance was found between: a) those with and without interest in working toward the CAE credential, b) between genders, c) between levels of employment, and d) between levels of education. However, 12 of the 18 items found significant differences, (p<0.01) with respect to CAE status. In each case, those who held the CAE had a higher mean value response than those who did not hold the CAE meaning the perceived value of CAE is higher among those who held the CAE. Although this finding seems intuitive, it is important to realize that intrinsic variables play a significant role in an adult’s decision to learn and continue to maintain competence in a profession.
The results indicated strong intrinsic value for the learning itself from those who achieve a recognized level of competence within their profession. This study did not demonstrate salary increase with credential value, which offers additional questions to explore in future research with employer value. The qualitative results (not discussed in this article) identified how certification achievement provided both motivation and confidence for earners to better serve their organizations.
The certification and credentialing industry can utilize this data for benchmarking and replicate this study to demonstrate value drivers found in structured programs that establish knowledge and advance professionals in practice. However, new models for shorter bursts of learning, digital badging, micro-credentialing and competency based education must also be explored as future possibilities and pathways to compliment or replace traditional assessment-driven certification programs. Houle (1989) noted, “the ultimate aim of continuing education is readiness to use the best ideas and techniques of the moment but also to expect that they will be modified or replaced” (p. 75). Fertig, Zeititz & Blau (2009, p.204) identified concerns to consider and noted, “certifying bodies must strive continually to determine relevant standards and valid assessment procedures and not be content to see their procedures as a kind of initiation ritual, which requires effort and weeds out some applicants, but is little related to actual job performance.”
Adult learners want timely information through innovative, mobile, accessible and interactive formats. Learners also desire timely recognition for their efforts. Fear of failure and self-doubt can be reduced or eliminated when adult students achieve reward or recognition, in small steps, by earning a digital badge or a microcredential along the professional development pathway to a high stakes final assessment or main certification exam.
Our ultimate role is to create quality learning experiences and recognitions that build passionate, agile learners. There is no better time to evolve systems and create new processes while considering ways to improve access to learning, as well as to enhance visibility and value of credentials to earners and employers. As higher education struggles with the aligning future value of degrees to the workforce, the pace and value of credentialing can gain enhanced credibility and relevance for tomorrow’s workforce while also striving to retrain adult learners for the jobs of the future.