Bring in the Translators and Decoders: The Language of Credentialing Needs Help – Part Two
- Christine Barrow, Director of Postsecondary Attainment, Education Strategy Group
- Wendi Copeland, Chief Mission and Partnership Officer, Goodwill Industries International
- Dhanfu E. Elston, Senior Vice President for Strategy & Chief of Staff for Complete College America
- Tina Gridiron, Vice President, ACT’s Center for Equity in Learning
- Audeliz Matias, Interim Chief Diversity Officer for Institutional Equity and Inclusion, SUNY Empire State College
Credential As You Go (CAYG) sponsored the virtual Summit on Language Used in the Credentialing Space: Big Concepts, Many Terms, Multiple Perspectives, Different Voices on March 16, 2022. The Summit focused on three troublesome areas of language use: Credentials and Pathways; Equity, Inclusion, Fairness; and Competencies, Skills, Learning Outcomes. The first three parts of this four-part series focus on these three areas, part four on key takeaways.
The Equity, Inclusion and Fairness discussion was moderated by Audeliz (Audi) Matias (SUNY Empire State College) with panelists Christine Barrow (Education Strategy Group), Wendi Copeland (Goodwill Industries International), Dhanfu Elston (Complete College America), and Tina Gridiron (ACT Center for Equity and Learning). The panel addressed the following question:
What do we mean by equity, inclusion and fairness, and how can they guide our work? We all want equitable credentials with on- and off-ramps that include everyone, creating a system that is fair to everyone. What does that mean?
Wendi Copeland underscored the importance of Goodwill Industries joining this conversation because Goodwill wants everyone to have the opportunity to thrive through learning and the power of work. And, in doing that, we must talk about equity because everyone means everyone-that means not screening people out. When we talk about inclusion and equity, we’re really leaning into belonging—how to make sure everyone has a space in a world in which millions have not returned to the labor market. They don’t see a place for themselves in this world. Whether it is a credential of whatever design, we need to make sure we are inclusive, ruling people in rather than screening people out. We’re talking about inclusion and equity that lean into belonging.
An asset-based approach is important because everyone brings knowledge and skills to the table, and believing that people can often means they will. We should stop trying to convince ourselves of what people cannot do−because we don’t know. How do we begin with believing that people can succeed? How do we design to include people and meet them where they are, so they can connect with credentials? There should not be distinct areas that only one group of people connects to and others do not. We need all talent on the table, especially people who have long believed that there’s no place for them in academia. They are overlooked talent from overlooked communities. It is time to get them in because the issue is not that they don’t want to be at the table. It is also critical to address two barriers: lack of awareness of what is possible and a belief that people like me don’t have a place in work like this. Getting people to believe and be aware of the opportunities to connect with credentials and making it part of the landscape we build is critical to making this work.
Tina Gridiron noted that the ACT Center for Equity and Learning is exploring how equity shows up in all its work, for example in WorkKeys assessments (national career readiness certificates) and work-ready communities. There are many ways we can play a role in the equity, fairness and inclusion equation. All three are important, have value and are necessary:
- Equity is what we measure so we know we are making a difference. How do we know all populations, all individuals are achieving—not just participating in the opportunity but achieving the outcomes we say are available to them?
- An inclusive environment is impactful, effective, warm, empowering and welcoming. Inclusion is the space we create for the work to happen—the space that makes sure everyone is involved in the process and feels empowered, inspired and welcomed.
- Fairness is the work we do to ensure that the design addresses all the intended and unintended biases.
What should we start doing as leaders committed to these outcomes? Take risks to lean in on equity, issues of inclusion and fairness to start the conversation as we engage in design to make sure those who have been marginalized or disconnected are at the table. We should start with an asset framework (asset framing design) that every individual is aspiring to success with the credential they are seeking. And if they are not yet achieving it, what are we doing to re-engineer the design so they are able to? If we are not seeing economic mobility through the credentials we are promoting, we must ask ourselves what new work needs to be done to ensure economic mobility?
Dhanfu Elston underscored the importance of evolving terminology but cautioned how much time we spend on the vernacular and language without focusing on the expectations and outputs associated with that language. It’s good to have these national conversations around diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging—all key critical terms—but it is important to focus on what disparities we are trying to solve and how they affect educational opportunities, workforce opportunities and social mobility, specifically for the most marginalized student populations and social identities. Depending on the organization you’re talking to, there may be a focus on a wide variety of characteristics like gender, citizenship or physical ability. Race tends to be a common thread across all those different identities. But it’s less about defining equity and more about understanding what an equitable approach looks like.
An equitable approach is developing strategic solutions to take systemic action to address inequities—not just naming the thing. What do we do about it and what are some of the historic and systemic problems, which lead us into that question around inclusion? When you talk to most individuals, inclusion is a value, like a unique quality and perspective about including meaningful opportunities and diverse perspectives. The missing piece of this inclusion conversation is the power dynamic. It is not about just ensuring that the right people are at the table. It’s ensuring they have a voice and having a voice means people have to be involved in the planning, decision-making, and their own personal efficacy about what it means for their lives and their communities. So who’s at the table, who’s controlling that dialogue, is part of what this larger equity and inclusion conversation must be about. Black and brown students are the least represented in the fastest growing, highest-paying jobs in the country. That’s the problem we are trying to solve, and if we do not fix those structural pieces, we will not ever get to that larger outcome.
Christine Barrow noted that if we can clarify the end point, what it will look like, it will be easier to build systems. No matter the learner, the credential must open the door to economic mobility. That is what an inclusive environment looks like from both a workforce perspective and education space. It’s the reason why the students are coming to these learning spaces. Equity is an important piece when we are doing this work; it has to be a guiding principle.
Once we have reviewed the credentials offered, we need structures and systems in place that lead to not just getting people in the door but to the same equitable outcomes once out the door. That is where we must dig into the data associated with these credentials. And that is where you get to the equity part of the definition: identifying the gaps and what is causing those gaps. A big piece of it is students not having access to resources they need. At the end of the day, we must listen to the stakeholders—the learners, educators and employers at the table.
From a system and structural perspective, we want to make sure we are emphasizing valuable credentials that lead to solid wages. Sustaining family is one thing, but thriving through high wages is more important. The grading systems and structures must also focus on belonging, especially for adult learners and even more importantly adult learners of color. An example is the student responses to a survey: “I’m scared to go into a class with a bunch of 18-year-olds. I don’t know what to expect when I go into a class.” Creating systems and structures as welcoming environments for these learners will help us achieve equity and inclusion, that sense of belonging for learners. Talking with some of the advisors who routinely say they get calls from adult learners saying, “Hey, I know I need a better job and now I need a credential to get there. Any ideas on what I should do?’ That first voice needs to be someone informed, who has the right tools and ideas to help students make informed decisions and encourage them to pursue credentials that open doors to future learning. We need pathways that allow you to step off, so you have a way to come back in and keep moving later. Otherwise we’re not going to get the equity we need in our pathways. Wherever learners are coming from, we need to make sure these credentials mean something to them and they belong to the community. We are talking about credentials, particularly credentials-as-you-go. There are barriers and biases around credentialing and everything to do with it. Having a voice and making sure students have a voice is critical.
Auti Matias summarized perspectives. We are all agreeing that output should be structured, so you know the expected outcome. The outputs are probably the biggest challenges in organizing the structural reforms we are talking about. No matter what kind of system, whatever provides a credential of purpose and value, whether that be technical degrees, a workforce opportunity or increase in upskilling all the way through different types of degrees, one of the biggest challenges is a poorly designed structure. We also talked about advising and onboarding to purposeful careers. This is not happening at most institutions, nor is employer engagement. Everyone says it needs to happen, but if you talk to most institutions, they have no productive conversations about what is needed, what the local workforce looks like and how that aligns with programs of study. Ultimately, you must bake these ideas into policy. State and federal policy are going to be critical to establishing equity.
- Equity is what we measure to know we are making a difference. Inclusion is about creating an impactful, effective, empowering and welcoming environment. Inclusion is the space we create to make sure everyone engages in the process and feels empowered to participate. Fairness is the work to ensure that design addresses all intended and unintended biases.
- No matter the design of the credential, make sure we are inclusive, ruling people in rather than screening people out.
- Start with an asset framework: believing that people can succeed often means they will. Every individual is aspiring to success with the credential they are seeking; if they are not yet achieving it, what are we doing to re-engineer the design so they are?
- There is danger in spending too much time on the vernacular and the language without focusing on the expectations and outputs associated with that language.
- Pay attention to the power dynamic. Who is at the table and who is controlling the dialogue are critical to inclusion. People need a voice, and that means being involved in planning, decision-making and personal efficacy for their lives and communities.
- Equitable outcomes. Who is going out the door with credentials? Look at the data associated with these credentials and identify the gaps and what is causing them.
- A major challenge is a poorly designed structural system around which to organize structural reforms.
- A diverse output system is needed to include valuable and purposeful credentials, whether they are technical in nature or all other types of degrees, workforce opportunities or upskilling.
- Creating systems and structures that are welcoming environments for diverse learners are needed to achieve equity and inclusion—that sense of belonging for learners.
- No matter the learner, the credential must open the door to economic mobility. That is what an inclusive environment looks like from both a workforce and education perspective. It’s the reason learners are coming to these learning spaces.
Author Perspective: Administrator