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Stackable credentials are becoming a common pathway for students to reach more advanced academic outcomes and high-quality employment in lockstep. In this interview Sandra Kurtinitis reflects on the importance of stackable credentials in delivering in the mission of community colleges and discusses some of the challenges to creating a culture of stackability.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): How would you define the mission of the modern community college?
Sandra Kurtinitis (SK): In my mind the community college is the most important sector of higher education in the 21st century. This is because we provide both college and career training, so that our students can be prepared to either move right into the workplace or pursue a four-year bachelor’s degree. Everything we do at a community college, whether it’s preparation for transfer or entering the workplace, offers an opportunity to help people get ready for a life and a career.
Evo: Why do you think there’s so much distaste for the idea that all community college programming is related to workforce and career development?
SK: This is due to the old concept of vocational education, which is still is in the minds of many graduates from past decades. But I ask you: Why would anybody go to college if it was not getting them prepared to move into the world, to have satisfying employment, and an opportunity to engage with life with a good salary? I don’t understand why our four-year partners have missed this. But I will tell you that I hear a lot of them now talking our language, using our images. When I hear our own university chancellor talking about the university as a workforce engine, then I know we’ve made some progress.
Evo: As universities evolve to serve workforce-oriented learners, how concerned are you that universities—specifically their Continuing Ed divisions —might be competing on your turf?
SK: I’m not at all concerned by this—it’s actually a positive. There are 1,100 community colleges across this country that work at different levels. And I’m not worried that our university partners are going to want to get in the business of training home health aides, or certified nurse assistants, or welders, because those kinds of professions are distinctly within our wheelhouse. Even if they were to enter into the short-term certification market, they would do it at a different level than we would. We will continue to be at the entry level of many of these professions, whereas the university is more equipped, even if they do short-term credentialing, to do it at a different career level.
Two- and four-year institutions occupy different spaces but the edge that community colleges have is our flexibility. We make sure that our curricula respond to the needs of employers in a timely manner. Most businesses and industries cannot wait for academic curriculum committees to take 18 months to review what needs to be done.
Evo: How do stackable credentialing models support this vision of responsive and flexible programming?
SK: Stackable credentialing is another capacity that many community colleges have. The Community College of Baltimore County, for example, is among the top tier of institutions that have the capacity to deliver instruction at either the credit or non-credit level and within a continuum of credentials. The best example of this is in the health professions.
Students can enter into a six-week home health aide program through our continuing education department, get a job and earn between $10 and $12 an hour. They might come back a little while later and maybe spend eight to 10 weeks becoming a certified nurse assistant and start making $15 an hour. And maybe a year later they return to CCBC and sign up for our LPN program. Every time we have a stackable relationship within a curriculum—even though CNA training was a non-credit program—those students can transfer the learning into credit as they enter the LPN program. So, in a year, they’re graduating with an LPN degree and making now $25-$30 an hour after earning a salary and working while progressing toward their degree.
These students can then enter the ADN, the associate degree in nursing, and get credit for all the outside and educational work they’ve done entering into the ADN program. So within two years they will be sitting on the stage at the pinning ceremony, receiving their ADN pin and degree. And most of these students are simultaneously enrolled in our associate-to-bachelor’s (ATB) program, clearing their pathway to a four-year degree at one of our university partners who offer bachelor’s degrees in nursing.
If partners and institutions work to maximize the strength of their internal programming, and connect with their external partners, in three years you can have a bachelor’s degree in nursing, having traversed two separate institutions and the curriculum within them.
When educators start thinking in this continuous, connected and contiguous ways, that’s the kind of work they can do.
Evo: What roadblocks stand in the way of credential innovation and the creation of stackable credential programs?
SK: In Maryland, even though we are as creative and as innovative as any other community college system, there’s a reluctance to cross over from credit to non-credit or back again. However, in some professions and disciplines, it’s easier. Technology is an example where you find, from the students’ perspective, they don’t need a degree, but they do need a credential. And sometimes this is hard for faculty to understand, because they’ve been trained and educated to deliver at the associate degree level. While businesses are saying that there is a certain credential they need, they usually don’t care much about whether the student has taken psychology or quadrilateral equations. Sometimes it’s hard for faculty to make that leap back and forth, but it’s really become more common in certain disciplines where that just almost automatically happens in response to business and industry need.
Evo: As a senior leader, how do you get people to recognize the value of this programming?
SK: I’m a big believer in leadership and followship at every level. That yes, leaders must be leaders, but they must also be followers, and followers must be followers but they must also be leaders. Very often, the greatest success that we find here is when we support the germ of an idea. A department, a faculty member, or small a group of folks might come together and say, “We think that this would be a good way to deliver this instruction, or we think this would be a good way to launch an alternative kind of schedule.” And we tend to be very quick to determine whether something works (or not) and adjust accordingly.
I’ll give you one example, right from our cybersecurity program on the CCBC Essex campus. They learned that students coming out of the military are anxious to move through education into a job. The cybersecurity faculty quickly realized that if they chopped their semester into four discrete pieces, students could actually finish their work far more quickly than if they did it semester by semester. While this was particularly attractive to students who were recently mustered out of the military, it’s become quite clear that many students want to pursue their credentialing this way. They can do four courses within a semester, and each one gives them a level of credentialing to enter the workplace. So by the time they finish the semester, instead of having taken two semesters to do this work, they finish in one and are on their way to a job.
Evo: What does it take to innovate in the post-secondary environment, which is sometimes averse to change?
SK: There is a way to do all of this that doesn’t make people feel like they’re automatons, cogs in a big wheel. Much of the magic that happens at a community college happens because our staff and faculty understand and love our mission.
About 95% of our students remain to live and work right in our communities. We just graduated 3,249 students, launching hundreds more nurses, welders, accountants, technicians, truck drivers and more into the work world. The majority of them are going to live and work right here, in the communities in which they grew up and went to school, making those communities infinitely richer.
We love that.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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Author Perspective: Administrator, Community College