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Conversations on Credential As You Go

The EvoLLLution | Conversations on Credential As You Go
The Credential As You Go model is putting ownership of learning in the hands of the learners, and represents a critical step toward creating a more accessible and outcome-oriented education ecosystem.

Peter Smith, Nan Travers and Holly Zanville recently met to talk about the national Credential As You Go (CAYG) Initiative. The following excerpt from their taped conversation focuses on the why and how: Why transform the U.S. credentialing system, and how can we make changes within the dominant traditional higher education system? 

Why transform higher ed to recognize learning in smaller units than degrees and credential as you go? 

Peter Smith (PS): There are two sides to this coin. One, we want anybody who can go to college to afford it and to prosper at an institution. At the same time, if we conflate that as being better than something else—like short-term credentials acquired along the way at a college or in other education and training—we’re selling both short. The pride and satisfaction people feel when they complete a credential, as well as the understanding and sophistication they gain—whether certificate, job recognition of their knowledge or another credential like a degree—that in my mind is of equal importance. There’s real power in incremental credentialing and the collection of learning in a continuous learning record. Recognizing and understanding it will lionize it, legitimize it as a really important, powerful celebration of learning.

Holly Zanville (HZ): For decades, about half of college-enrolled students—maybe not at the most selective institutions but at the public regional universities and community colleges—have dropped or stopped out. The result is nearly 40 million Americans in the some-college/no-credential group. They left college, but received no recognition of their learning. Are we to conclude that millions of students did not learn anything valuable enough to be credentialed if they did not complete their associate, baccalaureate, master’s, or doctoral degree? Reason tells us that cannot be true.

PS: I think it was unintended, but when you look at the traditional American interpretation of the liberal arts, which also carried over into sciences and other disciplines, historically it was white, male, post-reformation and European. And it was unquestioned. There was a derivative consequence that we were elevating one kind of learning—one set of content—to the exclusion of most others. The miracle that developed after the GI bill, the community college movement and the expansion of state colleges and universities —an unprecedented miracle—has fortunately made a bit of a difference. But the fact is, we are still staying mostly within our traditional system that says, “Higher education’s got it; you need it. And we decide when enough learning is enough.” 

As higher ed built this new ladder to opportunity for millions, we were excluding an equal number of people who were probably just as intelligent or talented simply for reasons of birth, race, sexual preference, learning deficiency, income—you name it. Once you see our system is biased about what is important to learn and how much is enough, you must transform the system. When I helped start the Community College of Vermont in the 1970s, we said, “We’re not going to measure our success on certificates and degrees per se, the old-fashioned way. Rather, we’re going to manage our success according to whether the student got what they came for.”  We asked every student who came in and registered why they were there, and our state budget model supported this approach. But this was not prevalent then, and has not ever become the prevailing model.

Nan Travers (NT): One of the things we’re trying to think through is where and when we start to see a shift in the model of what is considered traditional higher ed—and not be talking about the boutique competency-based institutions? Important as they are, they do not represent the lion’s share of higher education. How do we shift the whole perspective of higher ed, recognizing this powerful traditional history? How do we help some traditionalists realize that what is traditional is going to change?

PS: If you look at the birth rate, colleges expenses, and a whole bunch of other things, more and more people will be looking at employment and learning as their highest priority. Others have said it: “We’re going to reverse college to earn and learn, to recognize that people are going to be more inclined to get jobs and then move forward.” Many colleges are not going to survive economically with a traditional student population and the fixed costs colleges have. They’re going to have to think differently.

NT: Our philosophical structure is still based on the idea that education can only happen within an educational institution, and that only those who get that codified piece of paper at the end are actually knowledgeable. And that is in direct relation to the economy. When we start to shift the model and start taking it into all kinds of shapes and flavors—that there is an integration for the student trying to bring together the learn and work pieces—the thinking will begin to shift. We have to think about what education looks like for the learner now and what is this for the institution? We have to think clearly about how industry and higher ed can work together and think about it as a continuum, not an end point. We should think about the first year of work as part of the curriculum. There needs to be more consideration for how it all fits together—not that work is one entity and higher ed is another. Somehow the learner is just left to try to figure that out! We can be thinking about how to be very purposeful in helping learners navigate in-between work and higher but understand how their learning goes back and forth and builds all along a path—ideally a lifelong learning path.

HZ:  I think that’s why the term ‘working learners’ is starting to take off—to capture this new thinking. 

NT: If you say that the workplace is the learning place of the future, that doesn’t mean that colleges aren’t involved at all. It doesn’t have to mean that. 

PS:  What you said really captures it. It’s not as sexy as the abstract promise of a four-year degree. Many of us who have been privileged—entitled—in our higher ed path have seen all the qualities that help us succeed. People pick you up when you fall down, mentor you, give you the benefit of the doubt, tie you into networks of opportunity, those kinds of things. Every one of the people I interviewed for my book, Stories from the Educational Underground: The New Frontier for Learning and Work), had one or more of those things happen, but it was random. So, that’s where I’m thinking we have to take the human things that happen to people and help them become successful and better organize our learning system around them, so employers and worker learners can do this more deliberately. 

HZ: That’s what the new credentialism is about: credentialing smaller valuable learning units and doing so incrementally.  

National awareness campaign 

HZ: As CAYG develops a national campaign to build awareness of the benefits of incremental credentialing, I’ve been wondering if it’s better to focus on specific stakeholder groups first, and if so, which one(s)?

PS: I would focus first on employers because that will get the attention of many stakeholder groups including faculty. Workforce and employers are and will be driving so many of the major changes in our educational system. 

HZ:  Do you think we would accelerate or enhance progress in a campaign in the U.S. if we share international developments? If we describe how many nations might be ahead of us in this work like Singapore, Denmark, Canada and Australia, do Americans care if other nations are ahead of us? 

PS: I don’t think we’ll care until something happens in the U.S. to trigger fear. We need to remember that many other economies have much more control than we do in the U.S. People pay much higher taxes and fund higher ed differently than we do. But still, it’s good to stay abreast of what other nations are doing. 


HZ:  It’s not like there isn’t innovation in higher ed. There are many innovation flowers blooming, but there’s no central point of change in the U.S. like there is in many other nations. How do we accelerate and bring coherence to our highly decentralized system?

PS: I have been at this innovation work in higher ed all my life, and I’ve been learning every step of the way. It’s been a personal learning journey. The purpose of my new book is to tell the stories of real learners to humanize the social justice issue. Our society will be at risk as a social organization if we don’t solve this kind of problem with innovative developments such as CAYG. We’re at a new frontier at the intersection of experiential learning, college and career. We need to radically reconstruct the opportunity ladder in higher ed. We must end systemic discrimination in ed after high school by creating a universally accessible postsecondary ecosystem for lifelong learning and work.

NT: We’ve been really good at identifying what we’re not doing well, and we keep coming back to issues of equity and what a fair system looks like? If we were to fast-forward and the three of us could see what’s happening in the future, what would make us say, “Oh, this is the way we really want to be going?’’  We can learn from other countries in terms of what has worked and not worked. That’s good food for thought, but where do we need to be and what does our goal look like?

PS: I have in mind a horizontal, maybe slightly inclined lattice with all sorts of data-driven and skills-based pathways. And we teach skills of all sorts of levels of knowledge and weave in holistic services to support all learners’ needs, like mental health, childcare and work. 

State policy

HZ:  A CAYG movement must also promulgate state policy change. States will need to support policies, for example, to enable their universities to offer sub-baccalaureate credentials, like awarding associate degrees as students complete that level of learning on their path to a baccalaureate. The data tell us that many students will not complete the baccalaureate. Shouldn’t they receive any credentials of value along the way? State policy could not only permit that but incentivize that. 

PS: Yes, changing state policy is critical. 

Assessing Learning

NT: It seems fitting to end this discussion with the importance of assessing learning in an incremental credential system. Whenever people acquire learning, whether at a traditional higher ed institution or the workplace, that learning can and should be assessed and celebrated. That’s one of the powers of transforming the traditional system—to expand the practice of assessment of learning.

PS: Couldn’t agree more. We have the ability now to take any experience you’ve had and using assessment as a reflective practice, assess in three dimensions. First, assess what you learned in terms of content, what you know now that you didn’t before. Second, how have you applied it and used that knowledge? And third, what are the cross-cutting behaviors like critical thinking, leadership and diversity? We can extract all those from a reflective database, from evidence-based assessments. If we get the three-part assessment right, then the person can go to an employer and say, “I know and can apply these things and bring needed cross-cutting behaviors to the job.”  We can do this now, though there will be challenges to bring this capacity to our entire learn-and-work ecosystem.