Published on 2016/03/17

First-Time Students Pursuing Sub-Baccalaureate Credentials: What Does That Mean For Higher Ed?

—With Alexandria Walton Radford | Program Director for Transition to College, RTI International

The EvoLLLution | First-Time Students Pursuing Sub-Baccalaureate Credentials: What Does That Mean For Higher Ed?
With the understanding that most first-time students are enrolling in sub-baccalaureate certificate and associate degree programs, more attention must be paid to how to improve transfer pathways and completion rates in these areas.

The common narrative around higher education is that 18 year olds, fresh out of high school, enroll in a four-year bachelor’s degree program to gain an education that sustains them through their careers. The truth of the matter is far less clear cut. Students are pursuing a far richer array of credentials throughout their lives and the majority of learners are no longer 18- to 22-year-old, traditional students. They are non-traditional, part time, adult students. In this interview, Nicole Ifill and Alexandria Walton Radford reflect on research they recently published on the credentials first-time students are truly pursuing and share their thoughts on how these findings could and should change the way we think about higher ed.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Your research found that 52 percent of first-time students are pursuing either associate degrees or certificates – how does this change the narrative about what “most” students are looking for from higher education?

Nicole Ifill (NI): A lot of the media focus has been around younger, traditional-age students, students who are pursuing bachelor degrees. What we find, even when we look just at the youngest of students, they’re just as likely to be enrolled at a two-year institution. While younger students are slightly more likely to be in bachelor degree programs, they’re enrolling in the associate’s degrees at a higher rate than we would typically expect.

Evo: What do you think is driving this increased demand for two-year degrees and certificates?

NI: Cost is a consideration for students today. When they’re looking at the sticker price of a four-year institution, they start thinking about ways to reduce that cost by starting in a two year institution. We found that 70 percent of students who start at a two-year institution are expecting to transfer to a four-year institution within five years.

Evo: How has demand for sub-baccalaureate credentials changed over the last 5 to 10 years?

NI: From a student perspective, these numbers are similar to what we saw in the 2009 Beginning Postsecondary Students (BPS) Longitudinal Study, which looked at students who started in the 2003-04 academic year. But when it comes to looking at the job market, especially within applied healthcare, there’s been increased interest and increased coverage of the idea that we need more individuals working in the healthcare industry who do not necessarily need to be nurses and doctors. They could be medical technicians or phlebotomists, any of the more applied professions.

Alexandria Walton Radford (AWR): Sub-baccalaureate credentials have been around for a long time and, as Nicole said, have traditionally represented the majority of students. The fact that the people writing about education, our policy-makers and our funders generally have bachelors degrees shapes the mindset and puts more attention on the student population pursuing bachelor’s degrees. The numbers don’t lie that the sub-baccalaureate population is in the majority of first-time college students; there is an increased interest in getting students short-term credentials that have real value in the marketplace. Yet they receive less focus.

Evo: How does data collection and analysis need to change to better capture the performance of today’s non-traditional students?

NI: The Department of Education and IPEDS are making progress towards requesting that sort of additional data from institutions. At the moment, only institutions that have a transfer mission are required to report on the number of students who have transferred out of their institution and so I certainly think that in the coming years its important for the department to start asking institutions to follow up on those students.

In last 10 to 15 years there has been a lot of focus around student access. What we’re seeing now is that outcomes are at least equally important. Just because students are actually getting into an institution doesn’t mean that they’re successfully completing. This is especially true for these transfer students; right now there isn’t an entity requiring institutions to follow up on them after they’ve left their current institution and I think that’s a problem. The mechanism around which that could happen is very complicated, but a lot of people who work in the postsecondary data sphere would like to see a student unit record data collection system emerge. That could change the way that we, as citizens, think about access to education and data.

We hear a lot about the bachelor’s degree students, we even hear a lot about the low graduation rate but what’s missing is all of the caveats that actually go along with those statistics. When you read a headline, you don’t see that the transfer students aren’t included and you’re only looking at three-year or six-year graduation rates of first-time, full-time students.  This, even though our research shows that many students start off part time and they may not start in the fall which is another issue that you have with data collection.

AWR: The benefit of the BPS is that we are able to follow students no matter what institution they attend. We’re able to look at their transfer records and whether or not they’ve enrolled. We have a table where we are able to look at attainment and persistence at any institution, whether they transfer or stop out.

Evo: How are you hoping this research impacts the way colleges and universities operate?

NI: One place that I would really like to see institutions do more—and I know there are some that are working towards this already—is improving articulation agreements between two-year community colleges and the four-year universities in the same state. This would go a long way to helping students navigate the postsecondary system and decide what’s best for them. Right now there’s a lot of difficulty with transferring from two-year to four-year institutions. While some students may complete their sub-baccalaureate certificate or degree and enter the labor market, many others try to transfer into four-year institutions to pursue a bachelor’s degree. However, they often have to take multiple courses that they’ve already completed in the past because they haven’t been able to transfer those credits successfully. Having better mechanisms for students to move across institutions is really important.

Another area that I’m really interested in is competency-based education, which could really benefit sub-baccalaureate students and non-traditional students who have prior work experience and are enrolling in postsecondary education for the first time. Instead of forcing someone who may have been a bookkeeper for 10 years to take introductory accounting, they could receive credit for the work they’ve already done through prior learning assessment. Even for students without that experience, if someone understands 60 percent of the material for a given course, why would we force them to take the whole course again? Right now we have this requirement where students get all the credits or none of the credits. If we can find a way to modularize credits, it could help students complete. Beyond attainment, modularization could also help them understand what is it that they learned from a particular program, which they can take to employers and easily translate in a hiring process.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Click to download the full report, Persistence and Attainment of 2011-12 First-Time Postsecondary Students After Three Years.

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Key Takeaways

  • Though the majority of first-time students are enrolling in certificate and associate’s degree programs, the focus of decision makers and of the public is exclusively on improving the experience for students pursuing bachelor’s degrees.
  • Data collection and reporting needs to improve as many students, like transfer students and part-time students, are being left out of reporting on key performance statistics like graduation rates.
  • Two-year and four-year institutions need to work more closely together to improve and reinforce transfer pathways, facilitating completion while keeping costs and time-to-completion down.