Credentialing Terminology is Still Baffling

We had a great audience Friday on ASAE & the Center for Association Leadership's virtual conference that I lead on Certificates Versus Certification:  Which is Right for Your Organization?  We did a little knowledge assessment via poll where I presented four brief scenarios and asked the participants to indicate whether the case described certification, curriculum-based certificate, accreditation, or licensure.  I was surprised at the significant level of confusion among the terms.  The only case for which the clear majority of participants were right was licensure.  For the rest, the votes were across the board.  That wasn't a bad thing in this case since a primary focus of the session was to distinguish among the the right audience showed up!

With that said, although I've done it before, I thought it important to again distinguish among the program types here on the blog since it's clearly still a problematic area that can't seem to be overdone.

In brief, the key distinctions are:

  • Accreditation is granted to organizations or programs; certification, licensure, and certificates are granted to individuals.
  • Only governmental agencies confer licensure; associations, corporations, and universities confer certification, certificates, and accreditation.
  • Licensure is the only credential that is required to practice or operate legally within a jurisdiction, usually the state.  Certification, certificates, and accreditation can have high value in the market, and be written in job descriptions, building specifications, etc., but they are considered voluntary because individuals can still practice and organizations can still operate without them.
  • To become licensed or certified, an individual usually has to meet eligibility requirements (such as years of work experience) and pass an assessment (usually a multiple-choice test).  To earn a certificate, individuals must participate in a comprehensive training program, usually on a focused topic, and successfully demonstrate attainment of course learning objectives.  To earn an accreditation, an organization must demonstrate that their organization and/or program has met predetermined and standardized criteria.

Here's the long version:


Licensed Real Estate Agent
Licensed Practical Nurse
Licensed Cosmetologist

Things you should know:

  • The goal of licensure is to ensure that licensees have the minimal degree of competency necessary to ensure that the public health, safety, and welfare are reasonably well-protected.
    If a state has licensure for a given occupation, an individual in that occupation must be licensed to work in that state without penalty.
  • In the U.S., licensure is granted at the state level. 
  • To become licensed, one usually has to meet eligibility requirements (such as years of work experience) and pass an assessment (usually a multiple-choice test).
  • The licensure assessment usually covers a broad area of knowledge and skills at the entry level. 
  • Licenses usually have ongoing requirements (such as continuing education or retesting and renewal fees) that need to be met to maintain the license.
  • Associations do not grant professional licensure.  However, they often have a role in licensure activities.  As examples, they may advocate for licensure to be instituted in states (including providing model language) and they may collaborate with the state agencies during development and administration of licensing.

Professional Certification

Certified Association Executive (American Society of Association Executives)
Certified Meeting Planner (Meeting Planners International)
Certified Project Manager (Project Management Institute)

Things you should know:

  • Certification is voluntary.  Unlike licensure, an individual does not need to be certified to engage in a given occupation.  However, sometimes the certification becomes so important to job attainment that it can be considered quasi-mandatory.  This occurs when the certification is written in as a requirement in job descriptions, career laddering systems, or project specifications, as examples.
  • To become certified, one usually has to meet eligibility requirements (such as years of work experience) and pass an assessment.
  • The certification assessment usually covers a broad area of knowledge and skills – at entry, specialty, or advanced levels.
  • Certificants usually have ongoing requirements (such as continuing education or retesting and renewal fees) that need to be met to maintain the certification.
  • The National Organization for Competency Assurance is a membership organization for organizations offering or interested in offering certification. Visit for more information.  Its accreditation body, the National Commission for Certifying Agencies, accredits certification programs that meet their standards.  The standards are available for download on the Website.
  • The American National Standards Institute also has an accreditation for certification programs.  More information including the standards is available at  The standards are for sale in the site’s store.

Curriculum-based Certificate

Certificate of Training in Adult Weight Management  (Commission on Dietetic Registration)
Certificate in Supplier Relationship Management (Institute for Supply Management)

Things you should know:

  • A curriculum-based certificate is a comprehensive training program on a focused topic for which participants receive a certificate after completion of coursework and successful demonstration of attaining the course learning objectives.
  • Unlike certification, curriculum-based certificates usually do not have ongoing requirements, do not result in an initial designation, and cannot be revoked.
  • In certification, the focus is on the assessing current knowledge and skills.  In a certificate, the focus is on training individuals to achieve a certain knowledge and skill base and then assessing their attainment of them.
  • The training and assessment usually cover a focused area of knowledge and skills.
  • There are usually no ongoing requirements to maintain a certificate; they are more like educational degrees that are granted and never revoked.  Some associations do date the certificate, however, so individuals retake the course at certain time intervals.


Association Management Company Accreditation (ASAE)
Accredited healthcare facility (Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations)
Continuing education provider accreditation (Commission on Dietetic Registration and American Institute of Architects)
Accreditation of certification programs (National Commission for Certifying Agencies)

Things you should know:

  • Accreditation is a voluntary process through which an organization grants recognition to an organization or program after verifying that it has met predetermined criteria.
  • Accreditation is voluntary.  However, sometimes the accreditation becomes so important that it can be considered quasi-mandatory.  As an example, colleges and universities do not need to be accredited, but there are significant ramifications of not being, such as reduced or no funding, degrees not being accepted by other entities (such as certification boards), etc.
  • Accreditation usually has ongoing requirements (such as applications, site visits) that need to be met to maintain the accreditation.

PGI Friday: Application for Certification Board of Director Position

The National Certification Board for Diabetes Educators routinely solicits applications for its vacant spots on the certification board of directors.  A nominating committee then presents a slate to the board for vote.  Too many certification boards just let the current association president (assuming the certifying agency is part of the association) or the incoming certification board chair select the next year's board - an invitation to disaster (or at least homogeneous thinking), in my opinion.  An even better process - albeit sometimes not realistic for small programs - is to have an election by the certificant population.

Rethinking Traditional Certification

(This was originally posted over at the WHADITW blog, but is being reposted here for those who receive this by e-mail and aren't routinely visiting other blogs.)

For many fields, it may be time to rethink the traditional model of professional certification in order to meet the needs of the changing workplace environment and workers.

Say I’m considering changing careers and am interested in your profession. I Google the field and click to your website to investigate what I need to do. First, I discover I need a bachelor’s degree. Alright, I’ve got that. Oh, wait, it needs to be in x or y. Mine’s in z. Strike one. And, it needs to be from a university accredited by your association. Although mine is a regionally accredited college, it’s not on your short list. Strike two. Oh, I need seven years of experience before I can get the credential anyway. That seems like forever. Strike three. I decide to check out the online Occupational Outlook Handbook and discover the crazy part: the certification is voluntary. All this and I don’t even need it? Plus, there’s no state regulation of the industry. Back to Google. What’s this? A university certificate program offered online…a corporate certification program… another association’s intensive training program…lots of appealing options that fit my needs.

You’re thinking, okay, so we have eligibility requirements, but they are all necessary to ensure the quality and meaning of the credential. That will be true for some professions, but definitely not all. Consider if yours are really necessary or if there could be alternate pathways. Is an academic degree necessary or could some combination of training and work experience substitute? Does the academic degree have to be discipline-specific or could additional training substitute? Do you have any requirements that serve as artificial barriers to earning certification? Is there really any evidence an individual not meeting the requirements is any less qualified than those that do?

Now, consider the projection that Millennials (sometimes called Generation Y or Generation Next—those currently entering the workplace) will engage in an average of six careers in their professional life. Yes, that’s careers, not jobs. Now, in that light, consider again the traditional model of certification. How many Millennials are going to be willing to go to a college you deem acceptable to get a degree you deem acceptable just to get a credential that is voluntary? What about those who already have a base degree and are in the workforce? Does your certification have enough value in the market to drive an individual to basically start over? Are you confident you can sustain that value positioning for the next ten years? Or twenty?

I’m not suggesting that standards be watered down. But, at minimum, credentialing bodies need to take a hard look at what artificial barriers they can remove. And, in some cases, the whole certification model may need to change.

The half-life of knowledge in many fields is decreasing rapidly, and fields are becoming more specialized. It may well be the current model of certification just won’t work for your field anymore. As one possibility, just-in-time credentialing may be a more viable model in the new marketplace.

Consider the just-in-time model occurring in parts of the IT industry. A new technology solution emerges so you: Get real life work experience. Take a comprehensive training program, IF you need it. Take a performance-based test to prove your competence. Earn a certification. Gain a new skill set and a resume-enhancer to position yourself better in the job market. A new technology solution emerges and the cycle begins again…and again…and again.

This model has already proven successful in the IT industry. Maybe there’s something to be learned here for your field. Or maybe an entirely new model needs to emerge. One thing is certain: you cannot assume that the traditional model of certification is going to meet future needs. It may not be already.

You Don't Know What You Don't Know

Original Post 2-2-04 on Blogger, Reposted 7-18 to TypePad

When I started my business in 1997 I considered the structuring options. I decided to go with a sole proprietorship at the time, with the thought that I'd eventually structure as an limited liability corporation (LLC) for the limited liability benefit. At the time I hadn't read anything about significant tax benefits/downsides of any of the structures that I was considering.

As often happens, time flew and I never did switch to an LLC, which was okay because the protection an LLC affords is minimal anyway for my type of business.

Last week I had lunch with a consultant colleague. For no real reason, our conversation happened upon business structure. From that conversation came a nugget of information that will save me thousands of dollars annually in taxes. All you small business owners listen up! By switching to an S corporation, you only pay self-employment taxes on a predetermined salary the corporation pays to you instead of on net income (as a sole proprietorship and LLC do). And that 15.3% self-employment tax can add up. I've now met with an accountant and will be securing s corporation status ASAP. (March 2004 update: I am now an s-corp!)

Now, I consider myself a pretty knowledgeable and responsible professional. Yet, I as the business owner was not aware of this potential savings. So, my point: You don't know what you don't know!

My lesson learned is to get a professional opinion (or two)- on all matters for which you are not an expert. In what matters should you consider seeking outside expertise, either in your personal or professional life?

The concept certainly applies to PD and credentialing...
Let's consider certification, as an example. An organization could develop a certification program without any outside expertise. However, doing so could place the organization at quite a disadvantage for several reasons:
1) Inefficiency. Without guidance an organization can flounder about trying to determine the proper steps, methods, etc. And, of course, they may not even be aware of some of the steps/methods available or recommended as best practice. A consultant could efficiently set out all the options and advantages/disadvantages of each. (Sorry, that's not meant to be a plug!)
2) Liability. Certification can add much legal liability to an organization. It is essential that an organization consult with an attorney (ideally early on and at various stages in the development process - but at minimum, before the program is implemented) and consult with its insurance company to ensure it has adequate coverage. Not consulting with these professionals could expose your association to much legal risk...but, of course, you wouldn't know it...

Bottom line, we can't know everything, so when we venture into a new area, we need to turn to the experts for advice.