Published on 2021/07/27

Navigating the Development of Pathways

Students today are relying on higher ed to get them into the workforce. By illustrating a clear pathway from classroom to job market, students will stick with an institution that paints the bigger picture for them. 

With the shift the world has had to make due to the pandemic and its economic repercussions, there’s a demand for shorter programming that allows students to get the skills they need to stay relevant in the job market. But short-term programming can’t be created overnight; institutions must rethink how they’re serving their learners. In this interview, Suzanne Buglione and Jennifer Menard discuss the navigation in developing pathways from non-credit to credit, the importance of industry insight and creating more opportunities for the modern learner. 

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why are so many colleges and universities trying to figure out how to develop pathways that take students from non-credit programming into a creditor degree education?

Suzanne Buglione (SB): We’re seeing so many shifts in our society right now. Some are directly related to COVID. Some are related to our economic development. And some are very particular to certain regions that colleges and universities serve. So, there are many folks rethinking where they’re going in life, and there is growing demand for short-term credentialing that will help people shift lanes in their career or start entirely new positions. We see this a lot with our adult learners, but we also see it now with our traditional-age learners.

The idea of getting short-term credentials is really where the partnership of non-credit-to-credit makes so much sense. If you want to get a job quickly as a certified nursing assistant, Jen has a program for you that has lots of support. It’s a non-credit program, but then through the miracle of Credit for Prior Learning, we’re able to take what you’ve learned and give you academic credit toward a degree. One of the areas that the college has been working on is in offshore wind energy. 

Jennifer Menard (JM): People who come into my programs are looking to go right to work, so these are great opportunities for people to have the ability to ask themselves, Why would I take more? What does it get me? Because it usually requires more money—the ability to upskill in their own job or the new career. So, we want to be able to market short-term training with these pathways that will get the student to a higher wage or higher educational attainment in our region, which is important as well. 

We’re starting the National Offshore Wind Institute, and we’re working hard in the area of offshore wind. What’s wonderful is that we’re one of the few institutions in the United States that have an offshore wind associate degree as well as an academic certificate. So, we’re working right now—both my area and Suzanne’s area—on a certificate that we’re offering as dual enrollment early college. But also for adult learners to enroll in an offshore wind technician certificate, which will allow them to immediately get into the industry. This is an industry that’s going to be coming to our region because the natural wind resource is right near us. Biden recently approved the offshore wind industry, and three days ago, Vineyard Wind was approved to move forward. So, we know that we’re going to need workforce, and it’s going to happen quickly.

The community college has been very thoughtful about making these pathways for our residents that can take the technical certificate or the degree routes, as well as short-term training. They’re able to walk out with accreditation and have all the trainings they need to go work on a wind farm. And of course, working hand in hand with our CPL, or our Credit for Prior Learning, which is so critical in all of this. 

Evo: How important is it that stackable programs are built hand in hand with employers or industry associations?

SB: It’s so critical because the pathway not only has to work from an upskilling perspective, but it has to work from an industry perspective. Think about it as these multiple on and off ramps. An on-ramp may be a workshop, for example in cybersecurity, and then you might decide you want to move on and get a certificate. So, then we say to you, “Hey, guess what? You only have four more classes and then you’ll get a degree.” But the on-and-off part is constant. So, you might take a non-credit workshop and then you go right into the workforce, or it allows you to advance in your current career trajectory. And then you might continue maybe even with some support from your employer to go to the next place. There’s the on and off piece that also relates to Credit for Prior Learning.

Some of our models use Credit for Prior Learning, others are more strictly stackable. We need to work with employers because they need to influence curricula. They understand these pathways differently than we do, so it requires a lot of collaboration and work that, for community colleges, continues on through the whole degree and into transfer to university. We need to have employers on our advisory boards; they need to be influencing and helping us with labor market information and hiring expectations, even for students who continue to university for a baccalaureate degree. We have to be intentionally building these things in partnership from the start. 

JM: We had an offshore wind associate’s degree, and it had been shelved for a while because the industry had taken a pause. And Suzanne’s dean was really thoughtful about working with the offshore wind community to completely revamp what it looked like to the developers here in the U.S. So, we were very thoughtful about redesigning a program that would be an important credential to this industry. And that’s the way it has to be. I’m on the non-credit side, so I do a lot of work with companies. And it is about paying attention to what they’re talking about from soft skills to the positions being filled. 

We are so engaged with industry councils and groups that we become partners. So, that’s really critical for us to also talk to business, but those industry councils are the ones that really can speak for a much larger audience or group of companies.

SB: There’s the traditional path of looking at those companies, those employers, but there’s also a lot of information to be acquired through placing our students in internships through the industries. One of our current collaborators is Access to Recovery, a non-profit organization that works to engage individuals who are newly in recovery for substance abuse. And we are doing a non-credit to credit pathway with those individuals, who might not be ready to engage in a whole degree program but are looking to get back into the workforce in new ways. So, these partnerships are only limited by our ability to form relationships and to allow those relationships to influence us.

Evo: Do you have any advice for systematizing or scaling CPL processes to accelerate the time-to-credit being offered and to minimize the burden on staff?

SB: So, there is a consortium in Massachusetts among all the community colleges that works specifically on CPL. And what they have developed over the last couple of years with grant resources is a common website called Learning Counts, where anybody can go and see which community college is best suited for them in terms of Credit for Prior Learning. It’s a single point of entry with information, then we get direct referrals from that system to our community college.

We have a special first-year college success seminar that is only for adult learners, and Credit for Prior Learning is incorporated into that. Structurally within the institution, we have a faculty member that has released time as our coordinator for Credit for Prior Learning. And she does one-on-one interviews with every single person that comes forward and then helps make the connection for them to the appropriate faculty members, who can assess and award their credit. 

In some of our design, we built it in so that, when students begin in a non-credit offering, they know immediately they can use this later towards XYZ. And we are always on the scout for grants or donations that can alleviate any fees for students with Credit for Prior Learning. They’re nominal fees, but we don’t want somebody to not be able to be assessed just because they can’t come up with the $50. And it really boils down to intentional design. 

Evo: What are some of the most common challenges that you had faced, that other leaders can expect to face when it comes to crossing this credit divide?

JM: For us, the challenge has always been looking at where we fit in with academic programs. How do we provide that short-term training piece somebody is looking for and allow them to have a pathway into a larger opportunity? Where do we fit with the academic program? How do we provide an entryway without competing with ourselves? There needs to be some trust, which is great because Suzanne and I very much trust in the goal at the end, which is to support students. 

And you need to think about where taking a course gets them. Is it enough? Is it a living wage? Those are really important things for us to look at. And then of course the connection into the academic degree and looking at whether it is still a robust program. How do we explain to students why we would be helpful for them to complete their program? One of the things that I’m doing right now is being very intentional about how we market that, instead of just showing them to the register. To actually talk about those pathways, about the time and the investment—which is probably not what they think it is.

SB: We’ve really focused on what I would define as discipline areas right now, and really having the deans from those areas working with staff to establish a relationship. We’re just not in the habit of doing this work collaboratively. So, a student has an issue, that they might bring to the dean, but it really has to go to both the dean and Jen’s leadership as well. Everybody needs to know about it because it’s often both a credit and a non-credit issue almost simultaneously.

Who meets with who? Who communicates with whom? When does that happen? What does it look like? If we have someone who might want to pay for some of this, all of that has to be re-imagined into some degree. And that’s the part that’s painful—nobody wants to invest time and energy in that. We’re excited about ideas, about making it happen, but that stuff gets sticky. One piece that we looked at, and I don’t know if we’ve even figured it out totally, is, How do we hire the people who will teach them? 

Do we hire people that would teach them if they were for credit? Do we hire people that have more expertise in short-term learning, more facilitators or instructors that you would normally see in a workshop or two? We need to commit to working through those pain points. And I’m really hopeful that as we develop protocol, it’ll be easier for the next batch of people.

JM: We’ve worked very closely with the academic deans to look at where they see opportunities for these pathways. That is so critical because they can see these pieces that could more easily be worked to be offered by me.

SB: And they’re thinking about what new things we need to develop to meet industry needs and student demands. As we start thinking about what that should look like in a new certificate or even later in a degree program, we make sure that we don’t do our whole design without collaboration with non-credit. 

Evo: One of the things that we keep hearing is, “We’re not doing stackable credentials or providing credit for non-degree education because it might create accreditation challenges.” How does that strike you? 

SB: It’s a little confusing to me. Of course, credit-bearing programs have to adhere to regulations and go through critical processes. Some of those are external accreditation processes. Some of them are statewide processes through our department of higher education. Some of them are internal processes. We have a pretty significant process for curriculum review, which goes through shared governance. Deans don’t have the responsibility of developing new curriculum—that’s a faculty role. So, when you think about the layers of things, yes, there are lots of things to be attentive to, and to do in a particular way, but I don’t know how that precludes doing them. 

JM: I’m in complete agreement, but I feel there are some really innovative ways for us to think about students. How do they get into a place where they can make a living wage or continue with their educational pathway? If you look at it from that point of view, you can’t go wrong. We’re all just trying to get our community to a place where they have the credentials that allow them to live well. 

Evo: How are operations tracked, especially as you create that crosswalk opportunity between non-degree to degree, so that there isn’t too much confusion for staff and students?

SB: The work we’re doing right now around developing protocols is really important because it gets to the minutiae of that. One asset that we’ve developed has been the Credit for Prior Learning because it’s a faculty-led structure process. It removes this level of concern of whether competencies are being met. Another structure that has helped us a lot is a new strategic plan. And when we had conversations in the 18 months that it took to develop a new strategic plan, we engaged the community and our partners.

We were listening to what people in the communities that we serve thought was critical for the future direction of the institution. There are four pillars in our strategic plan: equity, academic innovation, organizational excellence and partnerships. And we don’t take them lightly. We have very specific goals that include partnerships between non-credit and credit as well as partnerships with external folks from all sectors. It was also important to document it to our strategic plan. We are continuing to measure and assess our strategic plan outcomes, which is another place to look at this from a helicopter view. One thing that Jen and I have been really thinking about is managing growth because we’re learning so much as we go along. We don’t want to scale too much because we don’t want to create a house of cards with no infrastructure underneath. So, we’ve had to look at our leadership roles a little differently. Those mechanisms are really helping us to watch our outcomes and be engaged in assessment that provides us with continuous feedback about how we’re doing things. 

JM: The part that we’re looking to grow right now is microcredentialing and badging. We haven’t figured out how we’re going to display that. Because we don’t want to jump into something that’s flashy and new but that doesn’t mean anything to employers. We’re starting to work with our business owners to look at what that means. 

SB: From an academic or for-credit perspective, we haven’t even begun to discuss what badges and microcredentials mean. Because we look at course completion, retention and other measures of points towards reaching the goal. I do know though that many of our areas are very interested in beginning some of this work. And we really are committed to continuing it. 

We need to think about where the opportunities zones are in our region, and how we can make sure that we are fully engaged with the areas where our students and their families are struggling. It’s inherent to our mission and to our relationships. This is just another way for us to meet that mission and the institutional values that we have. It’s always a little miraculous to me to stop for a minute and look back on what we’ve been able to do given the fact that we’ve been remote since March 2020. But having an institutional commitment is important, having the faculty be confident in the Credit for Prior Learning process is important. The rest is really all design.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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Key Takeaways

  • Program design requires collaboration from both faculty and industry to ensure you’re meeting the needs of learners and employers.
  • Be strategic in creating short-term programming—look at what your specific region needs before looking beyond your community.
  • Developing protocols is critical to avoid confusion among staff and students when moving between credit and non-credit. Communicate clearly and ensure everyone understands.