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The Importance of Incremental Credentialing: Philanthropy View

Incremental credentialing is quickly becoming an essential offering for higher ed institutions to have, providing opportunity to the students who need it most and increasing retention and completion.

The national Credential As You Go initiative launched on May 12th at the kick-off meeting of the new Advisory Board. Holly Zanville moderated the opening panel represented by key groups in the learn-and-work ecosystem: an employer, a state higher education system, a state policy organization, and philanthropy. Panelists addressed the question: Why is incremental credentialing important? In a four-part series at The Evolllution, we’ll hear from our panelists in their own words (abridged from their presentations). The following are Wendy Sedlak’s remarks on the subject

Prior to the start of Lumina Foundation’s last strategic plan, it was clear that we had to reach our national attainment goal of 60%.  It was vital to focus on increasing attainment for adult learners─specifically adults with some college and no degree─as well as those with no recognized postsecondary learning. 

More recently, we have further focused on adult learners of color. We know that adult learners are more diverse than traditional students with respect to age, work obligations, and life experiences. 

Current degree lengths, including associate degrees, can be overwhelming. Furthermore, we know a two- or four-year degree program for many students, especially part-time students, takes double the time to complete. This is often too long of a stretch of time for those trying to balance work, family, and a host of other responsibilities.

Before I joined Lumina, I was involved in a series of TAACCCT evaluations (U.S. Department of Labor’s Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training grant program). Students on community college campuses would tell me about their story and the programs they were in. They would often say, “…and then life happened.” This was a constant thread. When “life happens” and students are forced to stop out, we often do not recognize the learning that has taken place or award credentials for competencies and skills that students have mastered.

We treat these students as though they haven’t gained anything despite what they’ve put in, including countless time and a lot of money. Moreover, many adult learners have already had negative experiences with higher education. This is often especially true for black, Latino, and Native American learners who have historically been less likely to enroll in college or complete a credential when they do enroll.  Therefore, programs seeking to better serve adult learners need to approach the work with intentionality about systemic issues that have discouraged adults and have left some racial/ethnic groups underrepresented and underserved by higher education. 

Incremental credentialing, especially credentialing that centers quality and equity, has the potential to play a key role in postsecondary education and disrupt the status quo by creating these smaller credentials, particularly certificates and certifications that are awarded along the way, and that compensate learners for the knowledge and skills they’ve achieved.

We know from work led by many of our partners, such as the National Skills Coalition and the Education Strategy Group, that identifying high-quality, short-term credentials and embedding them early in the degree pathways has led to an increase in retention and completion. And in the event that students need to stop or dropout, an incremental credentialing approach would enable those students to leave with a credential of value that could be used in the workforce. 

If we were able to do this really well, we would then be able to recognize the learning that takes place on the job or in the community and award it with a credential when folks return to complete their degrees, accelerating their time to completion. 

There’s a lot of potential value in a credential-as-you-go approach, particularly a quality credential that can serve as a win for students, institutions, and employers. 

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