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How Accepting Prior Credentials Will Shift the Thinking Around Lifelong Learning

As student centricity takes the spotlight for many higher ed leaders, it’s up to the whole institution to ensure the students are actually being put first.
As student centricity takes the spotlight for many higher ed leaders, it’s up to the whole institution to ensure the students are actually being put first.

For there to be a shift toward lifelong learning, there needs to be recognition of the work someone has put in, even if it occurred years before joining an institution as a student. Increasing numbers of non-traditional students will continue to move the needle in that direction and bolster a student’s resume as a lifelong learner.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What trends will have the most significant impact on higher education over the next five years?

Carolyn Callaghan (CC): There are four trends we’re really seeing. The theme that runs through all of them and the change occurring is how intentional and strategically people are thinking about these trends. What’s driving the world right now is enrollment and competition. People are taking that in and asking, “What are we going to do with the demographics and the demographic cliff?” They’re starting to look at those subsets of enrollments. One-fourth of our student body is learning online or at a distance, and most of them are over the age of 35.

People have no idea. You have faculty who don’t know that, administrators who don’t know that.

The second trend I’m seeing is a lot of schools be very intentional and strategic about how they’re restructuring their professional, continuing and online units to ready them for the future. Where are they going to be in this? Are they at the forefront, near the forefront? Are they still kind of on the edge, that extended school or location?

Third is that the role distance ed people play has us thinking about where distance fits into what we are and how it impacts, influences or changes our mission. And how do we do that intentionally?

Finally, I’m seeing more and more schools figuring out what they’re doing with credentialing, how will we take these credentials and weave them into their portfolio, how they are going to then translate them into credit.

Evo: What are some indicators signaling the progression toward achieving that new student-centric mentality?

CC: Once you start seeing policy changes to place adult students at the forefront or policies that don’t exclude adult learners, it starts to be inclusive of all students, including the ones they don’t see—distance students. Once you start seeing it happen at a policy level, that’s when you know it is intentional and it is strategic, that they’re actually putting words into action. Another indicator is who’s at the table. There are meetings many of us in PCO have been excluded from. We’re at the table now because they’re over there asking, what are they doing over there? How are they doing that work? They want to hear about innovation.

So, when you start to watch who’s being invited to the table, that’s when you know those indicators are really on the move. You start to see people who are resistant or just very closed off to certain ideas. “Oh, we’re about the 18- to 21-year-old.” And then all of a sudden, you hear them in another meeting advocating for a 35-year-old working two jobs. Then you start to say, “Wait a minute. They are open to change. They are listening to the indicators and are aware that we’ve got to do some things differently.”

And the fourth kind of indicator I’m seeing is schools crosswalk those credentials and the competencies to pathways for credit. And as people figure that out, it makes it obtainable and allows prior learning to come into play, really blending those alternative credentials with pathways to degrees.

Evo: As we transition into an environment more accepting of prior learning, of crosswalking alternative credentials, we start to shift from a time-based approach to education to a flexible, lifelong learning model. Operationally, what needs to change to facilitate that transition?

CC: That’s what every school is wrestling with because they have had it so segmented into the degree. “This degree will take this type of prior learning or that credential, and it will count for this, but if I change my major to something else, they may not take that credential and count it toward that certain class.” It’s been very programmatically tied to whatever your competencies are in that major, so it hasn’t been at an institutional level. What I’m starting to see is as people are taking them up against industry standards, looking at what NACE is doing with those types of credentials and mapping those types of things, trying to pull them both together into standards that we can both define and agree to.

And once you get to that level, there will be things that become standard. Credential will count for these things, but other things that fall to a departmental level because they will be so specific. It’s very difficult because schools wrestle with that prior learning. And if I need a portfolio for every single department and set aside faculty to review all those portfolios and that prior learning credit, it takes a long time. And adults want to know instantaneously what’s counting, what’s not.

Evo: You mentioned earlier that PCO leaders are going to play a larger role in this new vision of education and how part of what you’re watching is how much influence or capacity they have. Can you talk more about the role that you see PCO divisions playing in creating this more flexible, open postsecondary environment?

CC: The demographic cliff and increased competition speak volumes. Look who saved us this semester: distance students. Look at our competition, who they’re going after. They’re going after those adult students. People pay attention when you bring the data to the table. So, we need to supply that data, educate people on why an adult student is important in this mix, what they bring to the table, how you can be adult-centered versus being student-centered. You can’t talk to an 18-year-old the way you talk to a 35-year-old.

It’s a very different conversation. Many of us in the public comprehensive world are about access and new audiences. So, PCO units are very much interested in finding the units and the audiences we’re not touching. How do we get to them? What do we need to do? How did others form partnerships to offer programs to companies or whatever it may be? I want my students to leave, not only with a degree, but with a credential. How could we do that? Or what if my student leaves because of a hardship and they don’t have anything? If they just had a credential, they could at least return to finish that degree.

I see people thinking about that, talking about that in ways they didn’t in the past. I see people getting out into the workforce and talking to them about alignment and needs. Not asking what can you do for us, but what can we do for you? If you’re really about access, about community engagement and economic development, you should be lifting your community as much as you can. And part of that is helping with the workforce pipeline. Really being out there and listening. I’ve talked a lot about being intentional, being strategic. It’s very much about guiding, helping and educating your colleagues.

Evo: How can PCO leaders ensure they’re prepared to support their units through what is a very foundational change in their role in the institution?

CC: It’s demonstrating that value when you know distance enrollment was up 3.5%. And demonstrating the value to your college, to your bottom line, while demonstrating the value of educating all people. I’ll advocate to get my adult distance students in front of the board of trustees, so they understand them and get what kind of a student they are. And the value of that is tremendous because they didn’t really think about what it means to be distance, never stepping foot on a campus. You’re 35, you’re an empty nester or whatever it is. You say, “This is my opportunity. I’m going to school.”

One thing I focus on constantly is flexibility. I never want to tell someone, “No.” I want to try to get to a yes. But we both may have to compromise on what that looks like, which means collaboration. We’re in this together. Whatever we build together, we’ve built it in partnership. And last is really about advocating for the adult learner. You know, I think in some arenas, people go, “Oh no, here comes Carolyn. She’s going to tell us all about adult students and how that policy hinders the adult student.” But that’s how people start to realize who that student is and that what they say to that student could really matter. They didn’t intend to offend in any way—they just weren’t aware of the factors.

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