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Positioning the Institution as a Learning Partner for Microcredentials

At a time when unemployment is at a high, microcredentials offer a faster solution to get learners back into the workforce and keep them relevant throughout their career journey. 

Learners are looking to be employable—not just right now, but throughout their lives. Times are changing at a rapid pace, and both learner and industry demands are constantly evolving. What’s needed is accessible and flexible programming. Community colleges have been experts in delivering short-term programming for adult learners for decades; this is where they thrive and where other institutions can leverage their expertise. In this interview, Sandra Kurtinitis discusses the importance of microcredentials, the obstacles that come with developing and scaling them, and how Workforce Development can be a part of the institution’s strategic plan. 

The EvoLLution (Evo):  Why is it important for modern higher ed institutions to focus on microcredentialing?

Sandra Kurtinitis (SK): In this pandemic, when so many have lost their jobs, microcredentials offer a way for people to quickly gain new skills to advance in a current job or successfully seek a new job. The Community College of Baltimore County has always had an array of microcredentials in its quiver. Our community college plays a huge role in preparing residents of the Baltimore region to re-enter or advance in the workforce. For many students, the two or four years it would take to earn a degree is simply out of the realm of possibility; they need a credential to become employable in real time, to put food on the table or to buy shoes for their children. For many employers, the need for well prepared employees–with just the right amount of skill and knowledge–has become a pragmatic priority.  Requiring a higher credential is simply not practical or profitable.

Evo: Do microcredentials position community colleges more firmly when it comes to having the space to develop and launch microcredentials compared to the rest of the market?

SK: Absolutely. Short-term credentialing is definitely a fixture in the wheelhouse of many community colleges. We are the “practical cats” of higher education; most of us offer a continuum of short- to long-term credentials ranging from certificates to associate degrees. Once this pandemic ends, economic revitalization and recovery will flow right through our front door. There are a thousand community colleges across the country—this is what we do for our partners and our communities.  

Let me give you an example from CCBC, where we do a significant amount of both short-term credentialing and degree and transfer preparation. Last year, we had about 32,000 students in the extensive menu of non-credit programming offered by CCBC’s School of Continuing Education. To assist in putting Marylanders back to work, our governor used some of the state’s stimulus money to create the Governor’s Education and Economic Recovery (GEERS) grant to support those in need of retraining to earn short-term credentials.  We were gratified that our governor recognized the power of his 16 community colleges to assist with his economic goals for revitalization.  

Given the size of CCBC’s workforce-training capacity, CCBC received $2.3 million in two separate funding allotments. The talented teams from our Continuing Education programs managed to award every dollar of that $2.3 million, so several thousand students could seek short-term credentialing at no cost. The opportunities for training that lead directly to dependable, well-paying jobs are legion: HVAC technician, welder, dental assistant, surgical technician, sous-chef and on and on. This is one of the special gifts a comprehensive community college such as CCBC can give to our communities.  

Evo: Why is there such a cultural roadblock when it comes to developing, scaling and resourcing programs that don’t necessarily lead to a degree but do lead to a high-quality and outcomes-oriented credential?

SK: There is often a natural reluctance on the part of a traditional academic community to see value in short-term credentials, but our business and industry partnerships are moving rapidly to embrace short-term credentials as suitable preparation to complete specific job tasks. This is a pattern that has been developing for some time and not just a model fostered by the pandemic.  Two years ago, CCBC held a cybersecurity jobs forum that included speakers from Google, Amazon and IBM. Their message to the cybersecurity majors was, “We are no longer looking for degrees.  We want certifications that measure skills.”  A collection of short-term credentials (certificates, badges, letters of skill certification) hold significant value in many contemporary workplaces. 

A number of these influential industries are saying, “We want skill, knowledge and hands-on experience; we don’t need it packaged with a sheepskin. If you want to earn the degree, come to work for us and we will pay for you to finish it.”  This is a strong harbinger of change on the horizon, especially now when certain industries are competing for competent workers with the necessary skill credentials.  

In the end, degrees still hold value, especially an associate degree, which is often a more practical option for students eager to enter the workforce. However, there is growing recognition among certain industrial sectors (manufacturing, technology, automobile repair and even certain levels of healthcare) that microcredentials can serve as the passkey to good jobs with good salaries and benefits. The degree can come later. 

Evo: How do we make Workforce Development more appropriately resourced, but then more part of the strategic thrust of the institution itself?

SK: At CCBC, we embrace the mantra: “Everything we do is Workforce Development,” no matter whether the curricular pathway is to a degree or credential. For decades, Workforce Development was thought to be the purview of a small, under-resourced office down the hall with a sign over the door that said, “Workforce Development.” Not anymore. We community colleges know that our education agenda must be an economic agenda.  Today, we believe that every program or short-term course of study leads to the world of work, whether a student wishes to become a nurse, accountant, welder, home health aide, teacher, paralegal or poet. All of these disciplines fit snugly into the category of Workforce Development . . . after all, even poets have to eat. 

In the end, most of us seek an education to equip ourselves with the skills and knowledge we need to get a job. Whether the pathway to that job is a microcredential, an associate, a bachelor’s, master’s degree or a PhD, each level of education and training opens a pathway to the world of work.  

I was a college English professor for 22 years, but when I wanted to reach higher—become a college administrator and finally a college president—I needed a new workforce credential, a PhD.  

Evo: How does that model of stackable lifelong learning start to shift the position of the college from being an entry point to the labor market into a learning partner for an individual over the course of their entire career?

SK: Your question brings us to the crux of the issue, a convergence of capacity, focus and collaboration. CCBC is well suited to illustrate this paradigm because, out of the 60,000 students enrolled in 2020, 32,000 of them were enrolled in short-term, non-credit coursework leading directly to a credential. But later, many of these same students will wish to seek further credentialing that may eventually lead them to a higher level of certification or perhaps an associate degree. Our size enables us to function as a laboratory to develop a model of stackable credentials that creates pathways in many disciplines from non-credit to credit coursework…and sometimes vice versa. 

In spite of a continuum of rich curriculum and good intentions, our college is still working to maximize our ability to create a consistent pathway of short-term credentials to an associate degree in many areas. This delay results from several challenges: a continuing tendency to see a distinction between “Workforce Development” and “pure” academic content, the lack of active engagement between instructors from both sides of the curricular continuum and the need for a sense of mutual respect for each other’s work on both sides of the stackable credential continuum to provide mobility for the student who can travel up and down to fit his or her goals. 

Evo: Do you have anything to add on the impact that microcredentialing, when done strategically, can have on student success and lifetime retention?

SK: Our college has elevated the integration of the curricular and administrative support for the broad continuum of credit and non-credit instruction to a strategic goal. Although we still have two well-developed entities, we are making good strides in seeing curriculum as a continuum of short- to long-term completion: certificate to degree. In other words, to meet the needs of today’s students, we must weave this continuum into a whole cloth that creates a credentialing pathway with multiple stop-out points. If we do not serve and support student needs in this way, others with considerably higher price tags will.  

And of course, there is an equity message behind this discussion. The magic of the community college’s “open door” mission is that we serve the neediest of students: low income and minority.  Given the populations we serve, community colleges do more than many when it comes to equity. However, even we have to look more closely at meeting the needs of those already sitting in our classrooms, just as we need to reassess how we meet the needs of our industry partners. More than ever, the pandemic has helped push us out of our comfort zone into an awakening of meeting the needs of all of our constituents. At CCBC, this new awareness translates into our commitment to become a 21st century college, for 21st century students, for 21stcentury jobs. And we are well on our way to doing that!


This interview was edited for length and clarity. 

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