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Part of Western Governors University

December 3, 2020

Future of Higher Education

Rethinking professional licensure.

A Path to Economic Resilience

A man leaps above a low block in a bar graph.

By WGU Team

Flexibility has become an essential skill this year, especially for educational institutions and healthcare systems. Burnout and illness combined with nurse and teacher shortages have intensified the struggle to maintain the staffing levels required to keep schools, clinics, and hospitals running efficiently during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many states have had to rethink their licensing requirements to keep up with the demand for skilled professionals. 

While these stop-gap licensing changes may work in the short term, a larger conversation around professional licensing requirements needs to take place as the spread of coronavirus is brought under control and focus shifts to economic recovery. 

Professional licensure has always been a regulatory balancing act between enforcing minimum standards to benefit public interest and keeping those standards realistic in terms of time, effort, and cost required to maintain them. Since individual states determine their own licensing standards, the maze of regulations and requirements—especially for veterans, military spouses, and people from low-income backgrounds—has become so difficult to navigate that workers are being forced out of their career fields and into lower-paying jobs. 

Licensing requirements can be necessary to maintain knowledge and safety standards. But sustained, elevated unemployment rates demand a reevaluation of the licensure landscape, to ensure that individuals can use their skills to pursue workplace opportunity without overly burdensome, outdated requirements holding them back.  Some key licensure challenges are:

  • Portability: Having to re-qualify for licensure after moving to a new state can prove onerous or impossible in terms of time and cost. Students who move states during their academic coursework also face shifting requirements, adding time and expense to their education.

  • Excessive Burden: Licensure demands may be unnecessarily burdensome in some career fields compared to others. For example, cosmetology licensure has been found to require an average of 11 times as much training as that of emergency responders.

  • Changing Requirements: When educational and licensing programs change their provisions and processes, workers and students get caught holding the ball, especially if they are in the middle of qualifying—or requalifying—for licensure in their field or if they work across state lines.

  • Inequitable Barriers: Licensure can be particularly difficult to attain for certain underserved populations. Low-wage earners, for example, may not be able to afford to leave their current job to gain the skills and experience needed to meet licensure requirements for a chosen career. Workers with criminal records may be subject to “blanket bans” that automatically disqualify them without consideration for individual circumstances.

The global pandemic has accelerated the need to address this imbalance. To assist policy makers in their efforts to make licensure more attainable for qualified individuals, WGU has recently released its policy brief on licensure reform which contains detailed suggestions for resolving these licensure issues. Recommendations include:

  • Collaboration among states to address licensure portability.

  • State assessments of existing regulatory frameworks and the removal of unnecessary regulations.

  • Interstate compacts to facilitate licensure portability.

  • Policies that make licensure more accessible and equitable.

True economic recovery depends on our ability to efficiently address licensure issues so that workers can get back on their feet and communities can heal from the effects of the pandemic. WGU believes in connecting talent with opportunity; licensure reform is an essential step toward creating equitable opportunity for the workers and students who need it most. 

We ask government officials and policymakers to consider the recommendations in Licensure Reform: Replacing the Maze with Pathways. The WGU team is available to discuss how to implement these recommendations through legislative and policy pathways. Start the conversation by contacting us at governmentrelations@wgu.edu. 

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