Higher education in the United States is increasingly described as being at an inflection point. Even prior to the pandemic, the value of a degree was being questioned, and there was a growing incongruity between reports that simultaneously stated that recent graduates were unable to find jobs and that employers could not find graduates with the skills needed for even entry-level jobs. With almost 11 million people now unemployed and a decreasing number of students entering community colleges and universities as freshmen, the post-pandemic environment has some experts worried about the long-term effects on the nation’s economy and competitiveness. Added to this are concerns regarding the growing level of student debt and increasing difficulty for students to afford the very education that could provide them with a stable and better future. Any efforts to address these issues must further consider two critical aspects: (1) non-traditional students now comprise a growing segment of the post-secondary population with some estimating that as many as 37% of the U.S college-going population is over the age of 25, with 64% working and as many as 31% living below the federal poverty line. And (2), the average cost of undergraduate tuition, fees, room and board at a four-year public institution increased from $8,274 in the 1999-2000 school year to $20,598 in 2018-2019, an increase of almost 150%, far exceeding the rate of inflation and resulting in the very path through which students could improve their lives becoming increasingly out of reach.
Higher education leaders and government policy makers are taking steps to address issues of student debt and better prepare students for the workforce. To develop solutions, they need to simultaneous consider the merging contexts of (a) increasing costs and (b) an increasing non-traditional population for whom the traditional mode of full-time attendance with no other responsibilities is not effective. Students in this population—many of whom are first-generation students—already work full time or at multiple jobs side-by-side with their academic pursuits, being the breadwinner and primary caregiver for their families, or they are returning to college after years in the workforce. Unlike the traditional student of yester-year, these students are faced with the pressure of balancing academics with the realities of life, and it must be kept in mind that even full scholarships will not cover the financial realities of being the breadwinner and primary caregiver.
One way to address some of the issues is to further develop stackable credentials and certifications. Considering that work schedules, economic circumstances, and even life responsibilities might preclude these students from going full time to complete a degree in the nominally structured time it is important that the completion of each credential enables the student to get a higher paying job (or one closer to their intended goal) than prior to initiation and that it can be used as an integral part of a degree, so that the time and effort spent has a dual benefit. A recent report estimated over 900,000 unique credentials offered by post-secondary educational institutions through MOOCs, and by non-academic providers. However, the vast majority were not associated with, or transferable to, four-year degrees. There has been a significant effort between the corporate world and Community Colleges to develop pathways for credentials and certifications to count towards self-standing certificates and even associate’s degrees, especially in areas of growing workforce need, such as in cybersecurity, health and manufacturing. Successful examples such as the partnership between Boeing and Mesa Community College, and between Cisco and AWS and a range of Community Colleges for certifications, show significant impact both on the workforce and the community in terms of stepwise upward mobility. Acknowledging that a number of these aspects are not academic but based on direct skills in technical areas, we need to develop similar pathways integrating credentials, associates degrees and four-year degrees with the appropriate level of academic knowledge and workforce preparation.
In conjunction with the ongoing work to build smoother and more relevant transfer pathways between Community Colleges and four-year institutions, additional efforts could be also made, among other options, in the following five areas:
1. Developing blocks of courses within degrees that are recognized as meeting critical skill levels by the corporate sector for advancement in specific career streams. This is intrinsically different from just aggregating courses towards a credential, since it would need to meet well-recognized and agreed upon industry-wide competency levels that would result in career progression while also being transferable for credit between institutions (especially between two-year and four-year colleges) towards a degree. Attaining such a credential would assist the student in gaining a better job en route to their final degree and thus providing financial support even in cases where degree progression depends on the student getting on and off the academic carousel and changing institutions.
2. Integrating corporate courses/certifications into degree curricula. Courses and certifications such as the CCNA Security and CCNP offered by the CISCO Learning Network and specific Amazon Web Services Certifications, especially in the IT, network, and cybersecurity areas are already accepted for college credit towards a degree at institutions such as WGU and UMGC. Greater acceptance of these across two-year and four-year institutions with the guarantee of transfer between them would go a long way toward both meeting critical workforce needs and providing routes to career progression for students while they continue their studies. Under this structure, a student could complete a short-term credential from a provider such as CISCO or AWS and then apply it towards an associate’s or four-year degree, or complete it as part of the degree, thereby melding the career pathway with an academic pathway while allowing staggered progression.
3. Developing industry sector-specific certificates in areas of high need in partnership with that sector. The increasing pace at which technology and information converge has resulted in needs for high levels of advanced knowledge that may not exist in the current workforce and would take too long to meet through traditional degrees (including the extended time frame to establish a new academic degree). These sets of courses could be offered simultaneously in both self-standing certificate modes and integrated degrees such that they can be taken by individuals needing upskilling to either keep their jobs or to progress along a career path without losing any of the time invested in attaining the certificate and ensuring that all credits count toward the degree, even if completed at a later date. The graduate certificate in Unmanned Vehicle Systems at the University of Texas at Arlington, developed by four departments in conjunction with the aerospace/UAV sector to meet emerging needs in that area, is an example of such a pathway, structured to be taken either independently without pre-requisites outside an appropriate Bachelor’s degree or as an integral part of the full degree.
4. Developing clear integrated pathways for career progression with academic degrees. This has already been in use in fields such as healthcare, which has very clearly defined and largely articulated pathways between certifications and degrees. The pathway in nursing, for example, includes the ability to move from a certificate and the LPN, through the AA/RN, to the BSN, enabling the student/employee to gain a higher level of employment as they progress. In this case, the student has multiple entry and exit points along the pathway, and with the inclusion of online modalities, can even progress while employed fulltime. This is made possible by well-established and long-standing recognition of specific certificates, licenses and degrees, as well as pathways between them in a highly regulated sector. The expansion of this type of model to other fields that are regulated through professional licensure, including specific areas of engineering, technology, healthcare/wellness and management, would go a long way in building career and academic flexibility.
5. Enabling degree credit for past and/or ongoing career experiences. Working professionals who return to college to gain academic degrees often have significant experience and certifications that overlap with course content. Rapidly evaluating this experience against courses needed for a degree and then using it to replace certain courses can decrease time to degree while providing pathways for students to gain specific workforce skills that lead to better jobs along the way. The Experiential Learning Credit program at the University of Memphis, for example enables up to 30 credit hours—25% of the credits needed for a degree—to accrue from a pre-approved list of professional and standardized training courses, licensures and certifications, among other experiences.
Stackable credential pathways that are purposefully built into degrees can be advantageous for a significant and growing population of students for whom progression in employment is essential to support themselves and their families while pursuing higher education. They also enable students to hop on and off the academic carousel as needed with the assurance that if predetermined steps (the stacks) are completed, each exit point will result in career progression along with the consequent financial position. States, two- and four-year institutions, and the corporate sector must consider better ways to align and integrate such aspects through substantive, well-thought-out pathways that meet the needs of the non-traditional student and of an evolving, and rapidly changing workforce.