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Finding Innovative Ways to Offer Non-Credit

Higher ed needs to meet learners where they are. With today’s rapidly evolving workforce, short-term programming is helping learners upskill and reskill quickly, so that they can stay relevant in the workforce. 

Today’s learners need to enter and exit higher ed at their own pace. Institutions need to provide these learners with seamless transitions between credit and non-credit to get the right credentials at the right time. In this interview, Kim Siegenthaler discusses the importance of non-credit programming, student centricity and developing strong relationships between the institution and the lifelong learner. 

The EvoLLLution: Why is it important for public institutions to find innovative ways to offer non-credit programming?

Kim Siegenthaler (KS): First, I would frame that in a larger scope and say that it’s important to provide clear pathways from non-credit programming to credit with seamless transitions, so students can come in and out at different points. I see this as part of the accessibility mandate of public institutions. The more points of entry and educational pathways we provide, the better we fulfill that mandate. 

As we think about these on-ramps or the non-credit to credit opportunities, there are students out there who don’t need a for-credit credential to enter the workforce or be promoted. We have students who may not have the academic background that would make them eligible for admission to a for-credit program—at least not initially. Or we have adult learners who’ve been out of school for a long time and feel the need for a soft re-entry. All of that can contribute to a rationale for non-credit. But in each of those instances you can see where a student might come in  and say, Oh, I can be successful. Oh, I do need this. I want to move on to the next thing. 

If we don’t have a way to convert that non-credit learning to credit, then students are spending additional dollars and time, because now they’ve got to go and get the for-credit experience or credential as well.

President Truman once said, “If the ladder of educational opportunity rises high at the doors of some youth and scarcely rises at the doors of others, while at the same time formal education is made a prerequisite to occupational and social advance, then education may become the means, not of eliminating race and class distinctions, but of deepening and solidifying them.”

We need to raise more ladders.

Evo: As we diversify the array of credentials that the university offers, does that create a new university more geared towards student centricity and support?

KS: It depends on the DNA of the institution. You can take what we’ve traditionally called the R1, the research intensive, which would be the institutions that have been probably most invested in being a gatekeeper. I work at an R1 and I worked at an R1 before I came here—that’s not a criticism. But then you go to sort of the opposite end of the continuum, which we might think of as the technical, community and junior colleges, which are much more focused on workforce development.

For those institutions, the focus has long been more about meeting students where they are and understanding their needs. So, it depends on where you have been sitting and whether there’s a shift related to non-credit or alternative types of credentialing. And if you look at institutions that historically had strong cooperative education offices, that’s often been the alternative educational pathway. So there’s been a commitment, but even in that setting, a lot of times there’s no bridge between the non-credit and for-credit. 

Too often, there’s a hard firewall between what we do in Continuing Education and on the for-credit side. But there’s been dual commitment from many institutions that way. Others have been almost exclusively focused on the for-credit side. We have this increased awareness that one size doesn’t fit all. For example, some people on my team have five degrees, but that’s not sustainable for most people—to continue to go back to school and earn another four-year degree, another master’s degree, another doctorate. At some point we have to recognize that there is transferability in what is learned here and there and create ways for people to pull all of that knowledge into this next credential, whether it’s non-credit or for credit.

Evo: How important is stackable credentialing to developing these kinds of lifelong and life-wide learning relationships between learners, individuals and the institution?

KS: It’s incredibly important, but it’s not easy to do. I recently read Michelle Weise’s book, Long Life Learning. She talks about a trend toward longer work careers and multiple job changes that will necessitate this repeated reskilling and upskilling. That ties us back into what I said earlier, that we can’t expect people to come back to college for an additional degree every time their work changes. She said that on average, people change jobs more than ten times. In some cases, that’s not just a job change but a real change in focus. And if you’re working, you can’t always also go back to school for that additional master’s or graduate certificate.

We have to meet people where they are, with the education they need when they need it. And in many cases, that’s stackable credentials. At Georgia State, we also have the two-year campus Perimeter College that really gives us the opportunity to create stackable credentials. We’re building on our pathway approach, which is designed to make it possible for someone to start here, complete their associate’s degree, then transition smoothly into the bachelor’s degree and then perhaps into a master’s degree or so on. We began talking about creating those marketable job-ready certificates at the two-year campus. This way, a student can take nine credit hours in business or computer science—whatever they choose that will make them more appealing to employers. Then they can come back and pick up more credits to qualify for a promotion or raise. This way they have something to show for the education they’re earning along the way before they obtain a certificate or degree. 

One of the things that is true at Perimeter College and at many two-year institutions—and it’s not as typical for adult learners at four-year institutions—is that students may be taking only six to nine credits a year. How long does it take you to earn an associate or bachelor’s degree at six to nine credits a year? It just makes sense to break degrees into smaller bites, so that people can earn a credential in a short period of time. Having earned a credential is also a motivator to keep going, to work for the next one.

Evo: How consolidated is the institution when it comes to serving this vast array of learners, all taking different bits and pieces at different times?

KS: Georgia State University and Georgia Perimeter College were consolidated in 2016 as Georgia State University. It’s an evolution as we move toward greater centralization and consistency across operations.

The great thing about having the two-year is that students who apply at the downtown or four-year campus and don’t meet the admission requirements are automatically accepted at Perimeter College. They can begin to accumulate academic credit, experience smaller classes, build up their GPA. I can’t call Perimeter College small with 20,000 students, but with students spread over five campuses, there is more of a small school experience.

So, they can build their GPA and their confidence with the college experience. And when they reach a certain point, they can seamlessly transition. And students at Perimeter College benefit from its lower tuition rate.

For students who may have fewer financial reserves, Perimeter College offers a great price point to get started, particularly for some of the working adults who are not going to be enrolled in a sufficient number of credit hours to qualify for financial aid. Across the institution, we have centralized academic advising, student success, financial aid and student information system. So every student is being supported in the same way.

Evo: What are some of the core challenges that you are having to consider and navigate around to develop these high-quality stackable offerings? 

KS: There’s a great deal of support at Georgia State to create stackable, short-form credentials and non-credit-to-credit programming. And we’re all on board. We want to make it happen. Then you start looking at what it takes to get there.  Institutional policies have to be revisited, and in some cases, revised. In others, totally discarded, and new policies have to be written.

We’re part of the University System of Georgia, so all of our policies are consistent with USG policies, but then you’re looking at doing something different and you have to go back and say, “What are the system policies?” And then you have to look at your regional accreditor. What language do they use? Can we do this? What does this fall under? And making sure that you’re coloring within the lines that you absolutely have to color within. Then you’ve got to create this seamless workflow for enrollment, admissions, tuition and so on. This can be a massive lift for institutions with infrastructures designed exclusively for more traditional degree pathways.

We were having a conversation a few months ago about creating standalone undergraduate certificates. Is this a degree-seeking student or non-degree-seeking student, and why does that matter for financial aid? That’s a complicated question to answer. It took about 15 of us multiple hours and multiple emails back and forth. I can sit here and conceptualize why this is important, and I can draft the big framework, but then we get into the conversation and it pretty quickly gets really weedy. What does the workflow look like? Who needs to be involved in this? What does that mean?

Evo: How do you manage the different needs of students, whether they’re degree- or non-degree-seeking, from the perspective of staff still having a home life? 

KS: There’s commitment to doing it, with recognition that we’re not going to get there overnight.

I can guarantee that Georgia State will get there, but it’s not going to be tomorrow. It doesn’t help that this is on top of COVID-19, where everybody is stretched to the max, not only in terms of workload but in cognitive shift too, because we had to start doing everything differently. 

There’s an advantage to that because you fast-forward, make some progress in nine to twelve months that in ordinary times would have taken you maybe five years. But then there’s a point at which cognitively you just melt down and realize you don’t have the capacity to solve another big-scale, multi-faceted or multi-year problem. 

It’s a reality that we’re trying to acknowledge and pace ourselves around. Related to this whole issue is credit for prior learning. And there are institutions that are way, way down the road in terms of credit for prior learning. That has not been one of our areas of emphasis. It’s going to be, because we understand that it has to be and that it’s in the best interest of our students. But that’s a monster to pull off. All the backend structure has to be firmed up. How do you track that? How do you make that seamless? How do you make it clean and clear for students? Because if we make it convoluted, then creating it doesn’t matter because students can’t take advantage of what they don’t understand. 

Another challenge around stackable programming is that each credential has to have sufficient discipline-specific content to be marketable on its own. It also has to fully align with the larger credential that it stacks onto. Does the typical adult learner trying to get a stackable credential see English comp as something marketable? Is that really going to help me get a job? What about my math proficiency? So again, what math or humanities course do we pull into this credential that someone could look at that and say, that has value to me in and of itself, and that contributes to the associate or bachelor’s degree? That’s a huge challenge. Solving that is going to take a lot of conversation with academic advisors and industry folks. 

Evo: How will Georgia State Online help the broader institution shift toward this more accessible, more stackable vision for the future of higher ed?

KM: What this has done is accelerate Georgia State’s awareness that there’s more that we can and should do for working adults, who really do comprise a significant percentage of our student population already. Something like 85% of our students work. Those are students who are challenged to get to campus for classes three, four or five days a week, navigating the mass transit system, getting time off from work, balancing their family commitments and all those kinds of things.

It really dovetails well because the whole impetus behind online education is to increase accessibility and flexibility, to raise those ladders of opportunity for people. When you start thinking about that, then you can’t help but say, We need to do stackable credentials and create non-credit-to-credit pathways and so on. They’re all integrated, and they’re all central to Georgia State’s mission of accessibility of opportunities for social mobility. 

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the shift toward stackable credentialing or what Georgia State is doing? 

KS: I would just offer some parting words about Georgia State where we embrace our identity as scrappy and innovative, so we’re not intimidated by big challenges, and this certainly is a big challenge. But there is a deep, deep commitment to increasing accessibility and opportunity for an increasingly diverse student population. So, this shift is part of that commitment, and we will live into this mission.

This interview was edited for length and clarity. 

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