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Elevated Expectations: Redefining the Language of Credentialing

With adult learners forming a significant portion of the student population, it is critical that higher ed recognize and honor the experience and background they bring by communicating their skills accordingly.

As the landscape of higher education changes, the language we use to describe lifelong learning credentials must evolve to reflect the true value and potential of these alternative pathways. Words matter, especially in the competitive higher education climate where the value of a degree is questioned. Just as some express discomfort with nonlanguage when referencing learners, I share a parallel concern about applying the label “noncredit” to the credentials people earn outside of traditional college programs. Using the term “noncredit” suggests these credentials are somehow less substantial. It’s time to challenge this status quo and recognize the hard work and dedication adult learners put into earning these credentials outside of degree programs.

A Linguistic Revolution: The Need to Show Value

By discarding the limiting term noncredit, we pave the way for a renewed narrative that acknowledges adult learners’ effort and commitment. Those working in Professional and Continuing Education units are not just facilitating courses; they are empowering individuals to prosper in their professional journeys. The change in language is not just a semantic adjustment but a strategic move to showcase the tangible value of these offerings to both internal and external audiences. These learning experiences are worthy of consideration for credit, given this renewed focus on providing stackable, alternative pathways to degree programs.

Even some accrediting bodies seem to recognize the importance of alternative credentials. A notable example is fall 2022, when I participated in answering questions about micro- or incremental credentialing for the SACSCOC’s “Survey on Trends in Higher Education.” This acknowledgment underscores the need to reevaluate language and more broadly accept nontraditional learning experiences within the accreditation framework.

The linguistic adjustment can also help other campus units embrace the diverse pathways adult learners can take. It may inspire wider collaborations on credit for prior learning and more institutional memberships with organizations like Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) to ensure recognition of military, community and work-based credits. These changes not only reinforce the value of valid competency pathways but also align with the broader movement toward acknowledging experiential learning as a valid form of education.

The link between language change and partnerships is crucial, especially in the context of workforce transformations due to AI technology adoption. Continuing and professional education units are laser-focused on the future of work and the acquisition of new competencies. Data from Amazon/Gallup and the World Economic Forum, reported in Hanover Research’s “2022 Trends in Higher Education,” stated that 55% of employees worldwide will need reskilling by 2025. A significant part of this reskilling involves AI literacy, a new skill that workers must acquire to succeed. Faculty, in turn, must prepare students for this AI-centric future. Incentivizing faculty and staff to collaborate with Continuing and Professional Education units and industry partners could prove to be a powerful strategy, ensuring AI literacy is seamlessly integrated into curricula and responding effectively to the workforce’s changing demands.

Furthermore, the term “noncredit” not only undermines the value of the credentials earned but also poses challenges for Professional and Continuing Education units in forging partnerships and developing viable revenue-sharing models crucial for supporting accessible and affordable education.

In an era when the future of work is rapidly evolving, traditional registration systems often struggle to incorporate the dynamic nature of alternative credentials and comprehensive learner records (CLRs). By redefining the language surrounding these offerings, particularly by adopting a term like “Continuing Education credit courses,” we not only signal their value but also lay the groundwork for the necessary changes in traditional systems, awards, regulations and recognition. This shift is not just semantic; it is strategic and aligns with the imperative to prepare learners for the demands of a changing workforce.

Empowering terminology can incentivize traditional campus faculty and leaders to seamlessly integrate microcredentials and embed career competencies into the curriculum, fostering a more agile and responsive educational environment that better serves modern learners’ diverse needs. Moreover, it should address the critical issue of revenue sharing, ensuring that faculty feel adequately compensated for their valuable contributions, which is essential for managing expectations, justifying new compensations and fostering partnerships to subsidize these courses.

A Call to Redefine: Elevate Strategic Conversations

I thoroughly enjoyed the inaugural 2023 conference “Convergence: Credential Innovation in Higher Education,” a collaborative effort by UPCEA and AACRAO. It signified a pivotal moment in the development of innovative credentials. This event brought together key stakeholders—deans of professional education, chief online learning officers, registrars and staff—to shape institutional strategies regarding alternative credentials. The call to action is clear: redefine language, elevate expectations and actively contribute to the evolution of higher education. Let’s break free from the constraints of noncredit and usher in a new era of education, where AI looms large, systemic transformation is expected and learner journeys vary. My proposal for the 2024 conference season is simple: let’s redefine these offerings as “Continuing Education credit courses.” It’s time to lead the change, redefine the narrative and shape a future where everyone’s educational journey is creditworthy.