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Building Short-Term Credentials From the Entrepreneurial Edge of the Higher Education Institution

Short-term credentials can have tremendous benefits for both higher ed and the communities and industries they serve, especially for smaller, more rural institutions looking to meet very specific needs.

To those of us working in large public universities, today’s pivot in higher education can feel breathtaking. Institutions are shifting to address declining enrollment in traditional age students, growing interest among adult learners in completing unfinished education goals and an industry need for employees trained in skills attainable through short-term courses in lieu of degrees.

Approaching Adaptation  

Texas Tech University, one of several large higher ed systems in Texas, is accomplishing that pivot by rapidly moving more degrees to fully online accessibility and building the infrastructure for short-term credentials. But unlike other universities in our state’s large systems, Texas Tech has within the university a unique component: regional teaching sites. Supported by state legislative funding more than two decades ago, the earliest of these regional sites grew from the desire in small, rural communities to make higher education available locally to their residents. 

The Role of Regional Sites 

Initially, the regional sites offered a handful of degree programs intended to support healthcare and K-12 education needs with local instruction. Over time, the regional sites began offering more four-year degrees through predominantly online courses, coupled with locally available academic advisors and a limited number of locally available face-to-face or hybrid classes. But enrollment remained relatively flat. Workforce needs in these very rural communities did not require many four-year degrees.

Now with the pivot, the role of these regional sites can expand to meet many more workforce needs, not only with the growing number and diversity of degrees available online but also by responding to local workforce needs for short-term credentials independent of degree programs. 

Texas Tech University at Highland Lakes was one of the first two regional sites established. It is physically located in the city of Marble Falls, which is about an hour west of Austin and a bit over an hour north of San Antonio, two of the five million-plus metropolitan areas in Texas. Marble Falls is the largest city within Burnet County, with a population just now reaching 8,000 in a county of 50,000 people across 1,000 square miles. With the diversity of online degrees growing, the regional site now serves a wider geography of students, including degree-seeking students from the Austin metropolitan area as well as those in the local communities in Burnet County and contiguous counties with even smaller populations.

Expanding with Short-Term Credentials to Meet Workforce Needs

But the pivot to provide short-term credentials in addition to degrees has been a game-changer for our regional site, allowing us to focus on a broader range of workforce needs. 

Our first community request for this type of program came from municipal government. Individual cities within the area don’t have enough employees in leadership roles to warrant in-house programs. Sending them to programs in larger cities is costly, given time and travel expenses on top of program costs. So, our regional site developed an extended leadership development program that takes place one full day each month over a ten-month period. That program just began its third session, serving a growing number of small cities within the region.

Federal grant funding from the highly effective Texas Workforce Solutions office for our area has made possible a second short-term credential that serves regional banks experiencing shortages of credit analysts, a position traditionally requiring accounting or finance degrees that now only require the focused skills taught through the short-term credential. Other offerings are being identified through outreach to local employers, coupled with data from our local economic development office. 

The Pros and Cons

Working apart from the main campus, 350 miles away with its academic department and the developing infrastructure for short-term credentials, has had some benefits and some drawbacks. With our Texas Tech site a member of these local communities, we’ve been able to meet rural workforce needs with a process more personal and entrepreneurial than would be possible for main campus units or in larger metropolitan areas. The main campus department tasked with developing the short-term credential infrastructure has been a vital resource, but curriculum development, instructor arrangements and program marketing have all been the responsibility of our very small local staff.

Because our programs are remote and specific to our community needs, you won’t easily find them on the Texas Tech website. We are developing a digital marketing campaign, coupled with more personalized website landing pages that we hope will address that gap and grow both our short-term credential programs as well as enrollment among degree-seeking adult learners from the broader region.

Embracing Change

The success of the programs offered so far and the keen interest expressed in building others demonstrate that we are meeting rural workforce needs in a way that would not have been possible without the pivot occurring in higher education, particularly among four-year institutions, to move into the short-term credential space. The process has grown more like a fringe entrepreneurial start-up than following the model of institutional change from within. But those of us at the edge and those in the main campus institution are learning from the process, and isn’t that learning what higher education is all about?