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Stackable Credentials Meet the Needs of Students and Society

The EvoLLLution | Stackable Credentials Meet the Needs of Students and Society
The number of students earning multiple credentials is already rising—colleges and universities need to do more to formalize the non-conventional pathways students are already taking to earn their degrees.

In the wake of the Great Recession, a number of “truths” higher education leaders took to be self-evident are disappearing. Students no longer fit into the traditional 18- 22-year-old demographic. Students no longer see their postsecondary education as a one-time affair. This second trend is particularly transformative, as learners are actually establishing their own non-conventional pathways to credentials within the rigid frameworks higher education institutions have in place. In this interview Doug Shapiro shares his thoughts on why these frameworks need to be rethought and reflects on the value of stackable credentials for students and for the economy.

The EvoLLution (Evo): What do your findings about first-time graduates tell you about the behavior of today’s students?

Doug Shapiro (DS): In our Undergraduate Degree Earner’s Report, we looked at students of different age groups, and what really struck us is what’s been happening among students 25 and older.

This is a post-recession story. A large number of adults entered higher education during the Great Recession. So we saw the number of students enrolled and the number of students earning degrees peak a few years after the recession, in 2011 and 2012. This doesn’t necessarily mean the recession was over, but the students who enrolled in 2008 and 2009 were earning their associate’s degrees. Those numbers really started to drop off as the recession cohort worked its way through their degree programs, and what’s interesting about this cohort is that it was students who had prior awards. These were students who were earning degrees that were their second or third step on their postsecondary education pathway. Among the 25-and-up group, we found that the percentage of first-time graduates fell from about 62 percent of all degrees awarded to 55 percent. Barely more than half of the awards going to older adults were their first degrees.

Now, we often think about higher education as an engine of opportunity in our society. We keep close track, as a nation, of our adult population’s education attainment, of the share of the population that has some type of college degree. What’s more, we measure institutional success by how many degrees colleges and universities are awarding.

There are a lot of degrees people are earning, which we’re excited about. But if we go back and look at the total number of college-educated people in this country, that number isn’t really changing. These second- or third-time degree earners are not really adding to the total attainment percentage because these are people earning credentials on top of the ones they already have. More degrees are absolutely good for society, good for individuals and good for our economy, so I’m not trying to say there’s nothing good about people earning multiple degrees. But it’s critical that, before we get too carried away with patting ourselves on the back about increasing numbers of awarded degrees, we become more careful about how we measure attainment and how we define progress.

Are we actually helping people get college degrees, or are we creating more access to degree programs for people who already have them? This is particularly important since we tend to frame our national goals around college attainment in terms of how many people have at least one college degree.

Our findings from this report show that we need to go beyond just counting the number of degrees awarded when we measure our progress.

Evo: Why do you think the rate of graduates with prior credentials increased so much between 2012, which is the point where the Recovery began, and 2015?

DS: The Recession Cohort was a wave of first-time college goers who might have gone right out of high school into the labor market, working in the construction industry or in the retail industry, and didn’t see the need for any college at all. When the recession hit, those were the individuals who were, in many cases, the first to get laid off. As such, they were also the first to enroll in college as a result of the recession. That explains the surge of first-time degrees that were awarded. As time went on and the recovery began, the older students who were still in the system now were students who were coming back after the first degree to pursue further education. These were students looking to retool and reskill, who maybe had an associate’s degree or a certificate and were coming back to get something more.

Evo: So students began building their own, informal, stackable pathways?

DS: Absolutely, students started building their own stackable pathways. This whole idea of chunking postsecondary education is becoming much more acceptable.

There’s an expansion in postsecondary offerings that speaks directly to the expectations of today’s students. There are more flexible and, in many cases, more cost-effective pathways to a degree than ever before, particularly at the bachelor’s level.

We’re seeing a steady growth in the percentage of students who are earning bachelor’s degrees now who started out pursuing an associate’s degree. This means many students currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree spent the first two or three years of their degree program in a community college at far lower cost than a four-year university, and with lower debt at the end.

That’s another trend that’s important to note—these are students who are much more sensitive to debt and concerned about the cost of a four-year degree than traditional students. If we look at the 2014-15 academic year, 19 percent of all bachelor’s degree recipients had earned a prior associate’s degree. That’s up from 17 percent just a few years earlier in 2011. That’s a pretty dramatic and steady rise in the number of students who are looking at their degree pursuit as a pathway from the community college to the university.

Evo: How can stackable credentials help institutions to formalize this trend?

DS: Institutions just need to be more aware of these trends and more informed about which of their students are creating stackable pathways for themselves, and where they’re coming from. Institutional leaders at both colleges and universities need to better understand their students. Did they transfer into your institution? Are they planning on transferring out? What are their long-term academic goals?

Many of these students are figuring out their education pathways on their own right now. If we look at the success rate of students building their own, informal stackable pathways, it’s remarkable that so many students are succeeding in spite of the pretty long odds they face.

Students who start an associate’s degree program with the aim to transfer don’t get enough information about the requirements for the bachelor’s programs they might want to transfer into. They need to know what they need to do right from their first day to make sure that the courses and credits they’re earning at the community college are going to transfer to the four-year institution and count towards their major. That planning process is immensely complex, definitely more complex than what students would face if they start at the university, as in that instance they only need to consider the requirements of one institution. If you’re starting in a community college, you need to be thinking right away about which types of four-year institutions you might want to transfer to, what majors would suit you and what kinds of courses you’re going to need to take to make that pathway a reality.

Many institutions don’t really have the advising capacity in place to help make sure that students can make those plans effectively and follow through on them successfully. This is true on both sides, at both community colleges and four-year universities. Not nearly enough attention is paid to the needs of students transferring from different institutions or to making sure that they have access to the information that they need before the point of actually transferring.

Evo: Would four-year universities be better off working to improving transfer pathway with community colleges or creating their own self-contained stackable programs that have a number of certificates pushing students along the pathway to a bachelor’s degree?

DS: When it comes to determining the best approach for universities, it’s not an either/or scenario between improving transfer or creating self-contained stackable credentials. Both options are important, and it depends more on the institution itself.

There’s such a range of different types of four-year institutions that have different types of students that they’re interested in and who serve different missions that I don’t think you can say one model or the other would be more successful. Each institution has to know its own students and figure out for themselves how best to meet their needs.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the importance of creating a level of credential stackability for today’s higher education institutions when it comes to both creating access and supporting completion?

DS: What’s really important about this phenomenon in terms of access is that, when we look at the data, it is disadvantaged students who are the most likely to see stackable pathways as attractive and to pursue these pathways, partly because of perceived lower cost and partly because these students are less likely to be able to commit upfront to spending large amounts of time in higher education.

To pursue a degree piece by piece, rather than embarking on a four-year degree program outright, means that you know you’ll have something to show for your effort after one year, after two years and so on. So even if you don’t make it all the way to your ultimate goal, you’re not going to be stuck with a lot of debt and no credential at all. That’s a less risky and more inviting path to students who are the least traditionally well served by higher education.

To make sure that we’re providing the access to students that we need to succeed as a society, these are the pathways we need to focus on.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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