Certificates, Credentials and College Degrees: Time to Shift Our Thinking

By Catherine Horn, College of Education

It’s that time of year again. College students across the country are taking finals, turning in papers, finishing projects and anxiously awaiting news of how they’ve fared this term.

But while national efforts are ongoing to boost college enrollment, another movement is questioning the very premise of the “seat time” model of learning. Instead, those proponents suggest ditching the traditional semester and credit-hour for competency-based education and stackable certificates.

Research and experimentation are underway, and energy executives are watching, even as their companies shed jobs to survive the latest oil price bust. The training for their next generation of workers is critical, rapidly evolving, and energy has an important contribution to make.

Higher education in the United States has, for most of its history, relied on letter grades attached to a credit hour structure, born in the early 1900s to reflect what students have accomplished after between 10 and 15 weeks in a course. The aggregate of those classroom-based efforts – captured in a transcript and a certificate or degree to hang on the wall – indicates a graduate is ready to enter the workforce – as a petroleum engineer, off-shore oil rig operator or any other category of professional.

Especially during the last decade, policy makers, industry and universities have begun to challenge the standard models of learning and credentialing. Instead, several alternative approaches have been proposed and often focus on enhancing three key conditions: quality, portability and stackability.

Quality, as a study from the Carnegie Foundation reported earlier this year, is really about moving away from models that stress only exposure to material toward those that emphasize mastery of concepts. And it intersects with portability in discussions of educational reform, focused on the idea that not all valuable learning takes place in a traditional classroom or on a standard timeframe.

Competency-based learning may take two weeks or two months, happen at a university or in the field, and all depends on the student and the specific area of focus. Reformed teaching and learning opportunities allow for better understanding students’ strengths and challenges and a flexibility that may result in better outcomes.

Researchers Evelyn Ganzglass, Keith Bird and Heath Prince considered the ramifications in a report for the Center for Postsecondary and Economic Success, noting that “Noncredit occupational education and training are estimated to make up nearly half of all postsecondary education…. Despite [the] potential parity in instructional rigor, workers and students who persist through demanding noncredit occupational education and training programs too often must repeat their coursework when they attempt to pursue postsecondary credentials, primarily because the credit hour and not competency, is the dominant metric for assessing learning.”

Finally, “stackability” acknowledges the idea that not every student takes the same path at the same pace, even when they are working toward the same outcomes. Consider this story from Inside Higher Ed about an innovative partnership between the Texas energy sector and community colleges. The program attempted to increase opportunities for students to receive training to meet immediate work force needs and, at the same time, to allow them to transfer that training toward a subsequent college degree.

There is much to be hopeful about when considering these ongoing reforms. First, the value of postsecondary education is clear, as the country’s civic and economic future rests squarely on an increasingly academically prepared workforce. Current reform also recognizes the dynamic nature of learning and that knowledge, skills and attributes recognized as important by educators and employers alike can be developed both within and outside of a traditional educational setting.

But in the glow of this new postsecondary dawn, we as scholars, industry leaders and policy makers have to be vigilant in clearly understanding its results for all students.

A paper prepared for the American Council on Education’s Center for Education Attainment and Innovation calls for a new postsecondary education credentialing system, which would provide tangible benefits for students, workers and employers.

The authors write, “A less confusing, high-quality system of portable, stackable credentials is a matter of equity for individuals of all skill levels seeking to climb the economic ladder and a matter of economic competitiveness for the nation as it seeks to increase work­force capacity and productivity.”

The challenge we face, whether students pursue a traditional college degree or portable, stackable industry-recognized credentials, is this: We must take great care to systematically and rigorously evaluate whether those paths are indeed experienced as equally noble and born out of a choice rather than structural predestination. History and research, including work I have done with Stella Flores, suggests that great care has to be taken to actively deploy these different postsecondary options to ensure that they serve as equitable opportunity providers.



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