Attract and Retain Learners with Digital Badges
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More often than not, adult students need to drop out of school due to family or financial issues. This trend is common to both universities and community colleges, and students who return to higher education may even decide to switch which type of school in which they re-enroll. With non-traditional learners comprising the majority of the higher ed population, institutions need to find ways to help onboard their students with whatever academic credit they previously earned. In this interview, Tony Iacono discusses the key players in creating these meaningful transfer pathways, strategies to help with retention and how to help students get back into the workforce.
Tony Iacono (TI): That has been a big topic in the state of New Jersey, especially for the state’s transfer committee. All of the colleges and universities feel that we have a huge responsibility to our students in this way. It’s very fluid in that students frequently oscillate between universities and community colleges.
In New Jersey, we have a really fluid and very deliberate process that allows that to happen. Students who go from a community college to a university do so under articulation agreements. In a nutshell, the university will accept the student and their credentials—e.g. an associate degree–with no loss of credits but they can include other things, too, like large tuition or residential discounts. The former are essentially advantages for the student.
On the other hand, we also have a reverse transfer, where students who leave their university or community college early can re-enroll and transfer their credits back to us to earn an associate degree, which is very valuable.
One of the big things we did this year to really help students transfer between community colleges and universities is allow students to use a pass/fail option. This option responded to the online shift as a result of the pandemic, which will give students a lot of support going forward.
TI: It’s incredibly important, so we have to look at what it means to students. That traditional student population doesn’t make up the majority anymore. Colleges resources have been declining, and students are taking out more loans, have to work while pursuing their education and sometimes have to drop out altogether due to outside responsibilities. Those students can then decide to come back later. The other common scenario we see is one in which individuals graduate, go to work, come back, switch degrees or upskill in their current field.
What’s happening in higher ed today wasn’t as common 20 years ago. One of the great things about reverse transfers for students is that they can send credits back to their community college. Having a degree makes them much more marketable and employable. Even if they temporarily drop-out before earning it, they now have something tangible in their hands.
In American community colleges, it’s an unfortunate reality that nationwide something like 50% of students never graduate. If you’re well-resourced and have that support around you, dedicating four years to school sounds perfect. But for many students, that’s never a possibility. We, as an institution, need to ensure that students have a tangible degree or credentials. We don’t want them to leave and only see student debt.
An associate degree can go a long way in fields like health sciences or manufacturing and lead to good paying jobs. For us, a good pay begins at $50,000 and above for an entry-level employee. I was on a traditional four-year path, and I wish I started out with $50,000. This system works to students’ advantage and is a reflection of today’s realities, not those of decades past.
TI: Stackable credentials are more important than they’ve ever been. Recently, at County College of Morris, we rebuilt the entire education sector’s workforce with the idea that some students coming out of high school may not want the traditional four-year degree but a type of credential.
What we’re finding is that many students don’t want the degree or don’t have the confidence to believe they can earn one. Once they begin to earn some credentials, their confidence increases and they then decide to register for more credentials. As the credentials stack up, they can see the pathway to an associate degree forming and start working their way to eventually earning that degree. This is becoming a more common reflection of today’s learner—especially in the technology field. Companies aren’t looking for a specific degree anymore either. They want the knowledge that can be earned through credentials.
TI: It comes down to one word: partnerships. That’s the only way for us; it would be completely impossible to do it on our own. And the partnerships are multifaceted. On one hand, I would say some of our most valuable partners are technical high schools whose students can see the path they need to follow. We have a tremendous partnership with a vocational high school that allows students spend half the day at their high school campus and half the day on our campus. Some high school students are also enrolled in college credit classes. These partnerships are invaluable to showing students the educational pathways available to them.
Our other partners double as employers. They work directly with us to develop a quality curriculum that meets their standards. They update us on their evolving industry, so we can adapt our curriculum to fit their needs. We’re in the middle of building pathways to get people enrolled, but we are also working with employers so students can gain employment after they earn their credentials. It would be irresponsible to not consider both two sides—we need to connect students with their potential employers.
Part of what we also try to do is work with employers is to get students in the door with apprenticeships but also have work agreements with large companies like Arconic. We even have a partnership with NASA through which students have designed the hardware on the storage lockers in the International Space Station. It’s great to have this seamless pipeline through which we can give students work experience and guide them through an education that lands them a well-paying job. Now, that also means making sure the curriculum is developed according to employers’ specifications, in tandem with university specifications as well.
TI: It’s very hard. The business community has specific needs, and it needs them to be met quickly. Sometimes they give us a deadline of a week, and that’s just not possible to meet. There are a lot of regulations to consider, state agencies to work with on top of the pressing need for well-equipped faculty for programs to function. It all takes time and patience.
The free market moves infinitely faster than higher ed probably ever could. The other big challenge is not knowing exactly what some of our partners need. Now, we communicate with them regularly to keep on top of all of that. The challenge is that they don’t always know how to work with higher ed. Some of the conversations we have to have are about how we’re going to build bridges for them. They’re brilliant in industry, and they know what they want to do, but how should we actually work together to get the results they need?
There are areas we’re good at, like healthcare and manufacturing. Other areas like technology move at warp speed. Employers will tell us that they’ll take care of the training as long as we provide a curriculum that has the fundamentals and essentials.
TI: We’re going to see tremendous transformation in this area going forward. Industry is changing so fast that we have to continuously fill hiring gaps. Everything has to match industry standards — things like keeping labs and classroom equipment updated.
Consumer expectations play a huge role in our work. We live in an on-demand society, and although we’re in an extremely tough economic situation, people have a lot more resources at their disposal than ever before. Factors like the rise of ecommerce, and the increasing speed of technology keep us on our toes in a way we’ve never been before. I don’t think American higher ed, in its current state, is well-designed to operate in the current context.
It has us really rethinking and reshaping higher education, but it also has us looking at who in higher ed is capable of doing it. Continuing education is in a unique position to work easily and quickly with industry. It gets exciting when we see a number of our college credit faculty come over to develop and teach in the continuing ed division–it’s like a sandbox in which they can be hyper-innovative.
TI: It’s going to be entirely reliant on partnerships and a lot of imagination. Huge wage disparities in the working world make building a continuing ed faculty difficult. Huge salaries in technology, for example, overshadow the more modest salaries we earn in higher education. It can pose a challenge when hiring talent. Fortunately, we do attract a lot of great people, andoftentimes we’re are fortunate enough that partnerships do turn into dollars. They’re willing to fund development, donate top-of-the-line equipment, and send over industry individuals to help us accelerate the process.
At a meeting I went to in Germany about two years, we discussed how higher ed has to undergo a massive transformation to keep the pipeline going. Since the industry is growing so fast, employees must be sent back to school regularly to reskill and upskill to stay relevant. We were able to pump a lot of money and expertise into making this happen. If higher ed can’t or doesn’t want to follow suite, it positions continuing education as the hub for the next generation of higher ed.
Some ideas are exciting, and some are scary because funding in traditional higher ed is always limited. We can’t move at an accelerated pace or have the unlimited funding that large tech companies have. The nice thing is that they don’t want to be the primary educators. They want to work with us and be involved with R&D and product development sectors. As soon as we figure out the right models, we’ll see a huge transition in education.
However, the problem lies in the blurred lines between acquiring good critical skills and having a solid education that emphasizes critical thinking, creative thinking and higher levels of communication. Higher education wants to keep pace on the global economic scale and knows that skills pay. At the same time, we’re going to come up short if we don’t continue to invest in traditional programs, like the liberal arts. Colleges cannot run solely on even the best tech or manufacturing programs because those industries need critical thinkers more than anything else. So, we need to find a balance.
TI: Even though it is a challenging time, I don’t know if there’s been a more exciting time to be in higher ed in my 30-year career. Conquering the challenges we face is part of the excitement. For us, partnerships are the answer to many of our problems. 20 years ago, conversations and meetings over video calls wouldn’t have existed. Most of the world has moved online, and it’s only a matter of time for the rest. We’ve learned a lot, and that gives you a lot of ideas about what tomorrow is going to look and feel like.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
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