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The Potential for Stackable Credentials: From 30,000 Feet

The EvoLLLution | The Potential for Stackable Credentials: From 30,000 Feet
Stackable credentials present numerous benefits to both students and institutions, but movement is slowed by the change-averse nature of postsecondary education.

Stackable credentials are becoming more prevalent across the postsecondary landscape, promising to transform the way institutions deliver key labor market skills, as well as credentials, to non-traditional students. This pair of interviews with leaders at senior and program-level positions at South Seattle College shares some of the ins and outs of stackable credentials from significantly different points of view. In this first installment, Holly Moore, the Executive Dean of South Seattle College’s Georgetown Campus, shares her insights on the value and potential for stackable credentials from her institution-level perspective.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why are stackable credentials so important today?

Holly Moore (HM): Stackable credentials are an economic imperative for students today because many learners can’t afford to take the time away from work or invest the capital in one single chunk to do a whole degree program. The programs offer bite-size chunks of education that enable people to gain work-ready skills, where they’re able to go through a series of successive approximations to reach their degree.

The other thing that’s really important is that stackable credentials tend to be competency-based and are therefore a stronger signal to employers in regards to the tangible skills they can use on the job.

Evo: What does it take to develop a stackable program that truly meets the needs and expectations of employers?

HM: These programs need to be first and foremost employer-driven. We use the DACUM program designed by Ohio State to develop our curriculum.

This program, which we’ve been trained on by folks from Ohio State, involves a assembling a focus group where industry leaders come together and talk about what is needed in the workplace for a variety of jobs. They break down the specific jobs that are in demand, and the educators are there just to listen. That’s the biggest thing for stackable credentials to truly meet employer demand. We as educators have to be listening to what employers are saying in terms of the jobs in demand and the skills those jobs require. Then we take that and put that into “Education-ese” and develop course outlines and content around the required competencies and skills that employers are saying are necessary for their industry.

The next part to making these programs truly meet the employers’ needs is to make room in that model for quality improvement. Basically, we need to build in a feedback loop for employers, so they can tell us what’s working, what isn’t and how we can adapt the programs to better meet their needs.

This leads me to another point. I’m totally in support of a “Lemon Law” for higher education, especially with stackable credentials. If a person completes a program and goes out into the labor market but they aren’t work-ready, then we need to bring that person back in and provide them with additional training to make sure they succeed.

It’s really to make sure these credentials meet the needs and expectations of employers. As such, the employers have to be at the helm.

Evo: How can institutional leaders ensure that their stackable programs are eligible for federal financial aid, given the specific class time requirements (among others)?

HM: As the higher education reauthorization process continues we may see some slight modifications to this. Right now, I think a program has to be a minimum of 600 hours for students to be eligible for federal financial aid. There’s a two-part prong to that, though. While we could offer a short program that’s 600 hours, probably about 30 quarterly credits, the problem is the then college needs to be willing to support short-term programs with financial aid.

The best thing to do in those situations is to work with financial aid department and student services. You first have to design programs that are going to meet the federal regulations around financial aid, which is the 600-hour piece, but then you have to work with your financial aid department to help them understand the importance of this approach to education because it’s not the same as what they’re used to. It’s not the same as getting a student right out of high school and moving them through two years before transferring them on to the baccalaureate. That just isn’t the way a mature adult learns and it doesn’t provide the workforce with the work-ready folks we need. It becomes a sales pitch in creating some champions in the financial aid office who are willing to go the extra mile for these little short-term programs.

Just one other point on the financial aid side: It’s sometimes hard for folks to qualify for federal financial aid for these short-term programs because they’re working and a lot of these programs are designed for working adults. Therefore they may not qualify as easily. They may not meet the “need test.” But there are some other forms of student support that can kick in on some of these. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), more commonly known as the food stamp program, has an addition known as SNAP E&T, which helps with employment and training costs. Many states have picked up the idea of supporting short-term, work-ready stackable credentials through SNAP E&T funding because these programs are predicated on a work model. These stackable credentials really make folks work-ready and therefore are very viable candidates for SNAP E&T funding.

Evo: How can institutions ensure that students continue returning to the college to progress to the next stackable level?

HM: The very first thing is to make your courses accessible. If a person goes to work and you’re offering courses from 8am to 1pm Mondays to Fridays, you’re probably going to have a problem with accessibility. We really have to rethink the college calendar and schedule. This gets us to thinking about the nature of a night program, or online and hybrid programs. It gets us thinking about how we can use that stackable credential model to help train people to learn in an online and hybrid environment. We offer baccalaureate degrees now and those the programs we offer are designed for incumbent workers, so those are done in a hybrid or online fashion. The hybrids are taught using the same model you see for executive leadership program, where the students meet in a seminar setting on a Saturday and Sunday afternoon two times a month through the quarter.

The other way to maintain retention is that you can’t lose contact with the student. That’s something that happens with colleges. We’re so used to students graduating and then leaving us. We’re not used to creating robust alumni associations and we’re not used to contacting students after they depart. It’s really important to stay in contact with the students through emails and social media—through every possible way we can.

The final aspect, which I think is particularly important, is to work with the employers. We need to keep employers engaged by ensuring they know that they’re going to have a steady pool of entry-level workers to replace the person further along in their stackable program. As their industries grow, they have a need for a higher skill workforce, which makes it imperative to keep supporting employee development and moving people upwards within the company.

Those are the three primary approaches to supporting retention: course accessibility, constant communication with completers at every stage and working with the employers.

Evo: How do colleges benefit by offering credential stackability?

HM: Colleges don’t see themselves benefiting from offering stackable credentials right off the bat, which is why they have been hard to get in place. Higher education institutions tend to take a long time to implement innovative programs—we’ve talked about stackable credentials for 15 to 20 years but it’s a lot easier to take a student right out of high school, so that’s where the focus remains. However, that’s not really the demographic we’re focused on serving in the community college system. We’re about serving non-traditional learners and, over the long term, we can benefit in a number of ways from offering these stackable programs.

For one we have a longer term connection with a student in a stackable program, which addresses the issue I raised earlier of improving alumni engagement in community colleges.

The other benefit in the state of Washington has to do with funding. Washington, as do many other states, has a performance-based funding formula in place for public higher education institutions. Our funding model is based on student achievement points, and we get immediate points for students that complete certificates. So by putting the certificate on the books, even though it’s part of a larger program, the students that complete add to our funding formula so there’s some real tangible benefit there for the college.

Evo: How could the involvement of four-year institutions further strengthen the availability and quality of stackable programs?

HM: Higher education has a tendency to move at glacial speed. However, many of universities are offering increasing numbers of robust certificates. You certainly see it at the graduate level, there are all kinds of professional post-baccalaureate certificates. The four-year universities’ growing understanding of how mature adults come to the educational arena, through these graduate level certificates, could be modified to help strengthen the whole credentialing system.

The benefits of stackable programs could be more robust both for the college and for students if we partnered more and if there were some way that we could break down the siloes that exist across the higher education system.

Everyone wants to see students benefit, to increase their graduation and completion rates and to do that faster and more affordably. Right now, higher education costs are exorbitant, but if the four-year institutions recognized or even replicated these kinds of innovative programs, it would create more avenues for students to earn their postsecondary credentials in a cheaper and faster fashion.

Here at South Seattle College we are offering baccalaureate degrees in applied sciences and these degrees are all built on a stackable model, with a progression of certificates and degrees. We have the three colleges in the district offering 12 baccalaureate degrees and most are built this way. The model gets students started with a certificate—even if it’s only a one-year certificate—and moves them all the way through an associate of arts degree and then on to a baccalaureate degree. We are strengthening the quality of these stackable programs by creating a pipeline into the baccalaureate degree.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the value that stackable credentials bring not just to students but to institutions as well?

HM: I don’t think we’ve talked enough about the value stackable programs create for students. Students who are 45-plus years old and coming into school for the first time—maybe after taking a few classes right out of high school before dropping out or maybe having worked for 20 years after starting as an apprentice—see this kind of approach as making higher education viable for them. They can complete these bite-size chunks and be successful right away. They can see that success where they may not have seen it as an 18-year-old right out of high school.

I think that stackable credentials build on the way that mature older adults learn. It makes it viable for them to take on this big horrendous thing of a baccalaureate degree by biting off chunks and benefitting consistently as they progress.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Please come back next week for the second installment in this Q&A series with John Bowers, where he shares his thoughts on stackable programming from the ground-level.

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