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Enriching Higher Education Beyond the Four-Year Degree: The Merits of Flexible Credentialing

The EvoLLLution | Enriching Higher Education Beyond the Four-Year Degree: The Merits of Flexible Credentialing
Rather than expect students to fit into the confines of a degree program, postsecondary institutions must become more responsive to learners’ needs by offering more granular forms of academic recognition.
As higher education moves towards personalized learning and prior learning assessment (PLA), the traditional four-year degree structure is becoming an increasingly ineffective means of educational assessment. In this interview, Andrea Keener discusses this shift away from the degree, and points out the merits of flexible credentialing for institutions, employers and learners alike.                                                       

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is it so important for colleges and universities to find new ways to recognize and acknowledge students’ knowledge, skills and abilities?

Andrea Keener (AK): Given higher education’s move towards individualized educational pathways, it is increasingly important to recognize all forms of learning across an individual’s lifespan. More and more students nowadays are what used to be referred to as “non-traditional”—they come to institutions of higher education with various backgrounds and various levels of knowledge and experience. Making sure that we value all of that richness of experience is incredibly important.

Evo: What are some of the most significant gaps that larger credentials like degrees have in recognizing an individual’s skills and abilities outside the classroom?

AK: One of the problems with traditional degree programs is that they can be quite inflexible. It can be very daunting for a non-traditional learner to know that they have to complete 120 credits in order to get a bachelor’s degree when they’re also struggling with other life demands.

Higher education hasn’t been too responsive, frankly, to the needs of the workforce or the needs of learners. One of the major gaps in higher ed is the gap between training and education. There are so many programs that we look at as “training” programs, and they are often regarded as lesser than full degree programs. Institutions sometimes respond to that by creating degrees for those training programs in order to add perceived value—but in doing so they’re making the pathway towards completion a lot more inflexible for non-traditional students who might find it easier to fit a smaller credential into their working life.

Evo: What can colleges and universities do to create a richer and more diverse ecosystem of credentials for students?  

AK: It’s important for institutions to form strong partnerships with the community, with corporations, and with students in order to engage in the practice of reciprocal learning. That might help make degrees more relevant to learners and the workforce.

Overall, higher education is making the educational requirements for a bachelor’s degree more granular. I know that some institutions are innovating in this regard by lowering the number of credit hours required in a degree program. This will help to make the degree more relevant. Recognizing incremental successes along the way is important—in other words, certifying students for the learning they have accrued along the way to earning a degree. That can make a big difference in keeping them motivated and also help them gain a sense of accomplishment that they may not have had at the onset of their educational journey.

Evo: How can divisional leaders and program managers build stackability into programs in a way that provides learners with the array of credentials they need to prove their skills and competencies to potential employers?

AK: If we approach higher education in a way that accommodates more individualized learning and recognizes the extracurricular competencies that students bring to the table—in other words, by building more flexible degree programs—it would go a long way towards gaining buy-in from all sides. By this, I mean buy-in not only from employers, but also from students. Student persistence remains a very large issue for a lot of institutions: students drop out, and go from one institution to another in the hopes of finding the “right place” for them. By recognizing extracurricular learning and creating more flexible degree options, students can more easily buy into an institution as the “right fit.”

Institutions have to move away from the notion that the student has to fit themselves into what’s best or easiest for the institution. Rather, they have to meet each student on his or her own terms and recognize what the student needs from the institution to accomplish their educational goals.

Evo: What are the roadblocks standing in the way of creating this more flexible credential ecosystem?

AK: The irony of higher education is that even though institutions generate innovative knowledge, they tend to be very slow to implement innovative processes themselves, and often have a hard time taking a critical look at their own processes. What stands in the way of creating a more flexible framework is the ability to come to a consensus that would serve all those involved.

Perhaps a framework on a grander scale might be helpful. At the moment, we’re seeing institutions coming forward with innovative programs on an individual basis, but a national or broader embracing of flexible pathways towards degree or credential completion would be useful. We need a structure that can be recognized by the accreditors, institutions, workforce, and learners.

So much of what goes on institutionally is driven by accreditation policy and accreditation standards. It’s very difficult for faculty members to bring innovative ideas about stackable degrees and credentials to the table when the accreditation frameworks are set so rigidly. We need to stop looking at highly structured four-year institutions as an accreditation safety net and start looking at broader possibilities.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about creating more flexibility around using credentials as a mechanism to personalize learning pathways for students? 

AK: The most important way of creating that flexibility lies in establishing more robust prior learning assessment (PLA) tools. PLA gives students and faculty the ability to qualitatively assess experiential learning, and that can go a long way towards helping to chart a course towards completion of a degree or certificate.

Additionally, vocational assessment should occur at the start, not the end, of degree completion. This stresses itself through the educational experience of students and might go a long way towards helping students maintain a sense of relevancy. So many of the students we work with on a daily basis become demotivated because they’re taking courses that are prescribed for them, which they don’t find relevant to their course of study. It’s like a high school student saying, “Am I ever going to use calculus or algebra in my life past high school graduation?” There are a lot of those moments in colleges and universities as well. We’re not asking students, “What would be relevant to you? What questions would you like to have answered at the end of your educational journey?” We’re asking them to fit our answers into the questions they have about how education will change their lives and professional circumstances.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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