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Credential As You Go hosted an online Summit on Higher Education, Quality Assurance & Incremental Credentialing on February 1, 2023. The discussion focused on ways accrediting bodies support incremental credentials, and what institutions and state systems of higher education are doing to ensure quality and address accreditation requirements in incremental credentialing. The following summary, the third in a three-part series, has been abridged and edited from the recorded transcript.
Barbara Gelman-Danley, president of the Higher Learning Commission (HLC), served as moderator for the panel:
Barbara: The credit hour is something that I sat on a negotiated rulemaking group a few years ago, and it was brought up by the former administration. It didn’t go anywhere because we haven’t figured out an alternative to that when it comes to federal financial aid. Financial aid is driving decisions on our campuses, and it really should be the reverse.
Belle: This stuff is on the non-credit side of the house, so it’s not strangled by credit. The institutions of higher education are reimbursed based on seat time. Until that changes, I don’t know how else we’re going to do it. That is one of those federal issues. They tried to do that 9-10 years ago, tried to find a way to redefine it. And they went right back to the same definition around seat time that came out of the Red Book at Harvard 300 years ago.
Barbara: It doesn’t make sense, it’s archaic. It is an anchor on our feet, which is why there are outside providers who are not tied to federal financial aid. The students have to ask the right questions of anyone whether they attend college or not, whether it’s outside academia. There was recently an article about one of our institutions that wanted to have a shortened degree, and the comment was made HLC is standing in the way. We don’t want to say it’s not us, but it’s the credit hour and it is a barrier.
Deb: I think the biggest example actually has been approval of distance learning programs. If you’re looking at online education, something solely online, you don’t have the same kind of judgment of seat time that you would in a face-to-face course. And the best way that they have to deal with this, at least for us at the state education level, is to say, what’s the equivalent? You know, give us an equivalent in seat time. So, it’s still there with regard to how faculty are compensated. That’s all built around seat time as well. We’d have to completely abandon what we currently do and completely reimagine it in order to come up with something different, I think. We don’t have an alternative at this point, not something that is going to work across all the different areas.
Angela : CAHIIM has a 3-year project on competency development for the largest number of the academic programs we accredit. They span from the associate to master’s degree. We can write the competencies, roll those out to the schools, but the schools still have to package a curriculum in a way that is going to match seat time. We’re hoping that through education, we have probably a year and a half of competency development work and then a year of faculty training where we’ll train the faculty or provide free training to the some 350 schools we accredit. In the end, it’ll be up to the institution to make those adjustments. But I’d love to see in 5 years where that goes away.
Kim: The state funding formulas are still based on seat time and credit hours and the value of a certification versus a two-year versus four-year degree. If there’s a brave state out there that rethinks the way we fund institutions of higher education from a completion and seat-time space to something more competency-based as well, then you might see some changes.
Deb: This past year, New York passed a part-time tuition assistance program, which is great because this really works well with our microcredential efforts. But it only covers 6-11 credits, so they’re still working off of credits for everything connected with the financial aspects of things.
Belle: Our staff doesn’t dream up stuff for institutions to do. Our members make up the rules— they come up with our standards, determine what’s important. And it is our board that’s elected by those members that approve the policies by which those standards are carried out. That’s why we’re putting together a committee from across the region of institutional members who are heavily involved in credentialing to see what are you doing, how are you doing it, and what we should be doing. From that, a standard and/or policy will evolve. It takes time to do this work, but it is important for people to understand that the institutions have to speak up and say, this is something important. Until the institutions speak up and either tell us what they want and/or how they want it done, I’m not sure that the accreditors are going to be responsive to our institutions.
Barbara: That’s why we became an agile organization because it’s impossible to operate in a vacuum and you have to do things in an iterative way. You reach out to those impacted. In our case, we see that as beyond our members.
Kim: The speed of changes has been ramping up faster than we’re able to keep up with. If the pandemic has taught us one thing it’s that we can be flexible and nimble. That has really challenged institutional leaders, faculty, and staff to understand that there’s much more nuance and complexity that we can apply to our current context. If we fail to take some of the innovations we implemented during the pandemic forward, I think we will have failed our students and our economy.
Kim: We have to be conscious of not establishing credentials that track certain students into one area and other students into another. If you’re developing a program, there should be a continuum whereby every student on that pathway can have access to the multiple options out there. We do run the risk of continuing to track individuals into certain pathways and we have to be really cognizant of that.
Deb: We really need to be able to review our data to make sure that the data are disaggregated in such a way that we know what’s really happening. Our microcredential work at SUNY is new enough that we don’t have those data yet, but making sure that our information systems are set up so that we can be sure to get the information we need is going to be critical.
Barbara: We have institutions that are magnificent examples of this. They’re very responsive to what’s going on in the market. Arizona State University is always used as an example, but it’s for a reason. Iowa State University is a very innovative institution looking at everything from student intent, which has been mentioned in the chat to student success and how to get them there. HLC through some outside work we did, has learned it is not always what our colleges and universities think that the students should do. What is a student’s intent and how can we acknowledge that along the way—the degree may not always be the intent.
Belle: From a past life, maybe three iterations ago, the institution at which I was working was heavily involved with the local industry. And that’s where a lot of these credentials start –with the industry in your area, whether it’s a region, city, or cul-de-sac. It was important to work directly with the industry representatives to say, ‘what are the skills you need and students to have in order to be successful in your company?’ The curriculum was then developed with input from them. A lot of our institutions, especially community colleges, are still doing that and being successful. That’s limiting because it’s only feeding the local community and of course, many students do move and then are able to become employed someplace else. I think a lot of the efforts in our region right now are going to be community-centered, for lack of a better word.
Belle: We have always been institutional accreditors – for us since 1895. That has never changed. It’s just that when we first opened business, it was the institutions in our area that decided there were enough similarities among themselves that we formed the regional co-op. I think that’s true for all of the other regionals. We’ve always been institutional accreditors. The recognition of us being “institutional” now has come from the fact that the previous administration decided that the organizations previously known as “national accreditors” were all over the country, but they all had the same mission, did the same things as regional accreditors, where our institutions were, geographically reduced. Our institutional missions varied all over the place, but we were doing the same things. So, they decided just to refer to us all as “institutional accreditors.” The reality is we’ve not seen a lot of movement, from the traditional regions. So among ourselves, we still refer to ourselves as “regional accreditors” or you may hear us say “formerly known as regional accreditors.” I don’t get caught up in what we’re called. The bigger distinction, I think, is between being an institutional accreditor and being a programmatic accreditor. Those are the two big differences there. A few years back, there was a major meeting of providers in Washington, DC. And there were over a hundred we had never heard of before. There was a call for somebody to become the accreditor of those entities’ programs. So far, nobody has stepped up to the plate for that. So there is not an accreditor of non-higher educational programmatic programs as it were, regarding workforce certifications, etc. Many are sending their credentials back to the American Council on Education (ACE) because they’ve been evaluating outside-of-higher-education-experiences for a very long time. But right now, that is not what we do—we accredit institutions of higher education and until that scope changes, that’s what we will continue to do.
Barbara: I’m going to answer this question by reading HLC’s revised mission statement. Effective, 2021: ‘The common good through quality assurance of higher education is a leader in equitable, transformative, and trusted accreditation in the service of students and member institutions. Our vision statement is that HLC will be the champion of quality higher education by working proactively in support of students and institutions in their communities.’ The difference here is we became a student-centered accreditor. So, I cannot answer the question fully but will say, stay tuned because there are some things underway. When you look at students, you can move beyond traditional higher education structures to provide services.
Belle: Continue to grow and challenge both our institutions and our accreditors to ensure that there’s quality in whatever’s coming out around this wider array of credentials.
Kim: Incremental credentialing will provide learners and earners with more transparent options.
Deb: I agree with that and also think innovation often happens faster than regulation reform.
Angela: We’re going to see rapid change and there will be some changes that force changes to higher education, maybe even to accreditation as well.
Barbara: The changing credential landscape will change learner’s lives and as a result their communities in our country. My 5 year-from-now-legacy would be that we’ve been able to reimagine it. We have to think big.
Author’s Note: Holly Zanville is Co-Lead at Credential As You Go. For more information about their work, please feel free to connect with her on LinkedIn.
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