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Save the Degree from Irrelevance: Rethinking On-Ramps to Higher Education

The EvoLLLution | Save the Degree from Irrelevance: Rethinking On-Ramps to Higher Education
Postsecondary institutions aren’t the only option for students looking to advance their careers. To stay relevant, universities can’t keep expecting students to use the same old on-ramp into higher education.

To stay relevant, higher education has to be willing to meet the needs and expectations of learners and industry leaders. Meeting those needs requires flexibility in how we think about the role of higher education and quite frankly, degrees.

The fast-paced, technology-driven, increasingly automated market has placed pressure on higher education while questioning the very value of the degree and its perception as proxy to employers. Add on the significant entree of alternative educational providers and what do you have? An opportunity to create stackable pathways to life-long learning that serve the needs of learners when they need it most.

The Situation

There’s no longer a single on-ramp into higher education with two off-ramps (completion or drop out). Similarly, career paths aren’t linear models with one entry point and a ladder to the top. Technology, the gig economy and our diverse global landscape have turned historically straightforward career paths into career “webs.” There are now more opportunities to enter the workforce without a degree, and more options to move laterally and across functional areas within a given field.

While a bachelor’s degree is still considered a minimum requirement for many jobs—reports suggest that 65% of all jobs in 2020 will require more than a high school education (Georgetown CEW)—many entry-level and technology positions can be attained through industry certifications and undergraduate certificates. Similarly, moving into senior management doesn’t always require a full master’s degree. In fact, post-baccalaureate certificates and other short courses in data analytics, digital marketing or leadership can be very effective tools for career progression.

The standard “earn a degree and you’ll get a great job” advice simply doesn’t work for everyone. Higher education leaders have an opportunity, and an obligation, to meet the changing needs of both students and employers. One approach to meeting these needs includes creating multiple pathways, or on-ramps, to the bachelor’s degree.

On-Ramp One: Stackable Credentials

Stackable credentials provide opportunities to earn the credentials needed to gain entry, or a promotion, in a given field. The benefit of earning a stackable credential is that it doesn’t go away – or expire. Students can earn a certificate, micro-credential or nano-degree to meet a specific goal. Then, when students are ready to stack that credential into a degree program, their credits can be used to achieve that next milestone.

For example, a student who is already working in the Information Technology field and possesses the CompTIA A+ certification can stack that certification toward an undergraduate certificate in Networking. This reduces the credit requirements, time to completion and cost of that certificate while supporting further career progression.

Then, in a few months or a few years, when that student is looking for more promotion potential, she can return to a degree program and earn a Bachelor of Science in Information Technology. By using the credits earned from any applicable industry certifications, the networking certificate, and prior learning, she can further reduce cost and time to completion. This stackable approach to lifelong learning honors students’ need to pursue an education that supports both short- and long-term personal, professional and financial goals.

Roadblocks to Stackability: Stackability requires planning and patience. Stacking in your university’s credentials towards degree completion can be the best place to start. After all, you know the outcomes of the credential and how it can be best applied to a degree. The curriculum also must be well planned so students don’t end up with an overabundance of credits that don’t count towards completion. Another consideration is that students will not have the same exit point. If they enter for a stackable credential, you don’t have their full attention for four years. Thus, you have to build a strong relationship with students so they return for the degree when the time is right.

On-Ramp Two: Partnering With Other Providers

With the emergence of alternative educational providers, bootcamps and other short-term, industry-focused options, higher education institutions must pay attention and realize not all learning has to occur within the four walls of a traditional classroom.

When there are high-quality programs with clear outcomes, job placement data and experienced faculty, it makes sense to partner. Evaluating and articulating credit with the right alternative provider creates an opportunity to recognize the academic accomplishment of students attending these industry-aligned programs through articulation agreements. Since these educational providers may be more agile than most higher education institutions, they often provide the relevant knowledge and skills needed for students to find their first job—a first job that may include the educational benefits to continue with their studies and complete a certificate or degree.

Roadblocks to Partnerships: Identifying the right partnership for your university’s mission is key! There are a lot of postsecondary start-ups and bootcamps on the market right now. Finding the ones who have clear measures of success and understand the needs of universities, to include our relationship with our accreditors, can be difficult. However, with the right level of transparency and requirements for the relationship, the high-quality partners can be identified.

On-Ramp Three: Prior Learning Assessment

Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) may not be an official on-ramp. In fact, PLA may be more like the express lane allowing students to demonstrate their knowledge in specific areas and earn college credit for what they already know. There are different approaches to PLA and each institution needs to decide what approach best meets their mission and honors their culture.

However, all institutions should consider how impactful prior learning can be as both a recruitment and retention tool. Honoring the prior learning of students can break down barriers, decrease time to completion, and reduce the overall cost of a degree thus positively impacting not only students’ lives, but the narrative about higher education.

Roadblocks to PLA:For a PLA program to be strong, it requires full faculty support and understanding that college-level learning can occur outside of the university classroom. Sometimes that learning is demonstrated through testing (CLEP for example) or through the evaluation of work aligned to learning outcomes (portfolios, for example). Curricular alignment, strong PLA policies and processes, and faculty involvement and support are key components of a successful PLA program.


Students and employers are demanding a new approach to postsecondary education. These pressures have created an environment in which alternative postsecondary options are abundant, the relevance of the degree is continually questioned, and students still get lost in deciding between a traditional and a non-traditional educational pathway.

With a little bit of creativity, we can work together to honor high quality academic learning and career-relevant education in the creation of new pathways, with multiple on- and off-ramps, to higher education and degree attainment.

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