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The Potential for Stackable Credentials: In The Trenches

The EvoLLLution | The Potential for Stackable Credentials: In The Trenches
Stackable credentials have transformed the way some institutions look at workforce preparation and program design, but more needs to change at the four-year and governmental level for this programs to be truly impactful.

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 the first installment of this two-part Q&A series, Holly Moore provided her high-level insights on the value of stackable credentials from her perspective as a senior institutional leader. In this interview, John Bowers discusses their value and potential speaking from a more program-level perspective.

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

John Bowers (JB): A lot of the students that come to my door are people who traditionally wouldn’t consider college. They face a number of huge and significant barriers, a number of them are adults already with families and it’s hard to consider college when you have a family to take care of. Quite a number of them tend to be low-income students and barriers that are associated with poverty also make higher ed a challenge. They don’t have necessarily reliable transportation, good healthcare or good daycare for their kids, which often means they don’t have the resources to get to campus regularly. A lot of people who show up seeking help from our division were not successful academically; they tend have had bad academic experiences in their life and therefore higher education doesn’t feel like a fit for them in general so they’re reluctant learners. With all these barriers, the idea that we can propose a quick program that focuses on developing critical and in-demand skills is a very key point. These programs are a way for us to really meet the needs of these students and to really emphasize the job-oriented nature of the programs. Most of the people I’m working with are low-income people with families that are looking for jobs. The fact that I can say, “Hey, these are certificates that are valued in the labor market and can lead to other credentials that are valued in the labor market,” is a really important message.

Stackable credentials are an effective way for us to look at and meet the needs of this often-underserved population. I see the mission of the community college as trying to reach people who traditionally haven’t thought of themselves as college material. The stackable certificate programs really match up with what we’re trying to do.

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

JB: Trying to hit that sweet spot between making a program attractive for the student but also meaningful in the labor market takes a lot of intentional work. We have to pay really close attention to what’s needed in the labor market and acknowledge that most students, for better or worse, basically can’t afford to spend any more than one year on their education, and that includes developmental education. To only have one year to get them from a pre-college standing to a credential with value in the labor market is incredibly challenging. It’s really difficult to construct a program with that level of acceleration and while ensuring that you address what the industry needs, but it’s possible.  We just have to pay close attention to and work closely with industry partners. We need to talk to them about the things they need from their employees—from our graduates—so that they can get these jobs.

At the same time, it’s important to acknowledge that the reality of life is that it may take more than a short-term certificate. I think the preponderance of evidence on certificates say it needs to be at least a year long and often sometimes more in order to to lead a job that pays a living wage.

To develop a stackable program that meets the needs and expectations of employers, you have to work closely with the industry, figure out what jobs are in demand, what skills people need to get those jobs and figure out how to deliver those skills in an accelerated way. Once you’ve created a stackable program with some degree of success, these programs can sustain themselves. Once word gets out that you’re offering a program that directs people into good living-wage jobs, people will seek it out. When people see proof of the benefits, they’ll invest even more of their time than they otherwise would. Critically, they begin to see how two years or four years or other longer more substantial credentials can get them even more return on their time and capital investment.

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

JB: This is one of the more difficult challenges facing stackable credentials because I don’t know if financial aid has ever been intentionally aligned with the needs of the labor market. I don’t think they’re thought of through that lens. I’m not in financial aid so maybe there’s more I can learn here, but from where I sit I see that financial aid is not necessarily designed to create access to credentials that will get students a living-wage job. It’s often much more about what program the student is in, how many credits the program offers and how far along they are. Labor market intention doesn’t really play a role.

We need to make sure that financial aid is supporting programs that get people living wage jobs and not creating barriers that are artificial or disincentivizing people from looking hard at programs that do lead to living-wage jobs.  Another wrinkle that can sometimes come up in financial aid is if students are unclear on their career path. Financial aid people will say that it’s advantageous for the student to go into an academic transfer program because it gives them the most flexibility. There’s nothing wrong with that, I have a four-year degree myself and I went on beyond that so I don’t want to in any way disparage the four-year route. But it prohibits people from really looking hard at workforce- and industry-directed credentials that might suit them better. There is a bias right now in financial aid toward academic transferring that doesn’t serve every student well.

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

JB: We’re designing these stackable certificates programs so that people have really good information about what sorts of jobs they might attain at different points along the stackable certificates’ career pathway. We have career pathways documents that we share with students and we show them what kinds of jobs and wages they can attain with, for example, a certificate earned in less than a year. Then it shows the kinds of jobs and wages are possible if they stick with the program and eventually earn a two-year degree. Communicating that information very clearly is important.

Ensuring students return is really important to us. It’s going to be vital if we’re going to imagine that adults without one-year credentials need to get them to be successful in the labor market. We’re going to have to figure out how to let people study, work and raise a family.

I look to the support structure in place for for working adults. There’s an initiative with the Seattle Colleges called the College for Working Adults where we’re looking at how we can redesign our program offerings to better meet their needs. Increasing the availability of hybrid or online options is an obvious example. We’re trying to figure out how, if somebody is working, we can continue to deliver instruction to them while they’re trying to balance family responsibilities, work responsibilities, school and anything else that’s happening in their lives.

Evo: How do you make sure that when adult students come back they still have the base of knowledge necessary to continue with their studies despite the delay?

JB: There are some industries, like information technology, that move incredibly rapidly.  In those kinds of industries, even for students enrolled in full-time degree programs, what you learn your freshmen year is no longer relevant by the time you graduate. There are industries that simply move that fast, so part of what we’re obliged to do is recognize the impact that rapid movement in the labor market can have.

It’s important to acknowledge a lot of times we talk about the hard skills needed to succeed in the labor market, but employers consistently ask us for employees with all the soft skills in place. Every employer out there is going to say they want somebody who can understand a complex problem and figure out how to get through it. They’re looking for people who can understand how to align different sources well, interpret information and understand trends and then figure out the right move for the industry to make. These are broad soft skills that students pick up when they learn the hard skills they need for short-term success.

Evo: How do colleges benefit by offering credential stackability?

JB: Higher education today is facing the big picture. There was a movement in higher education to create and maximize access to anyone. There are a number of people who I’ve spoken to in this space who said their entire careers were dedicated to opening the door so that different people who otherwise wouldn’t access higher education could. That access message and work is still vital to what we’re doing but there’s a new wave: completion. Access doesn’t get you everything. It’s not enough anymore to simply make the campus available to our community and to different populations who wouldn’t normally show up here. We also have a huge obligation to make sure that the people that show up do finish and get the credentials that they need to go be successful.

What stackable certificates do is really force us to engage in conversations around making sure that students have the information they need to understand the different steps they need to take take and the value they are going to get at each step of the program. They have the information to understand why they need to complete and how to do it. That message has always been part of professional, technical and workforce education programs but is now moving into the mainstream. There has always been this very intentional effort in professional education to go beyond just teaching students skills but we’re tying programs to industry. That intentionality of making sure that the student knows and understands what they’re getting and how to use that out in the real world has always been part of professional education. To see that effort move more broadly across the entire college is an important thing on our campus.

Stackable certificates don’t allow students to dabble. They are designed to prescribe to students where they’re going and this is why. I think that’s a benefit to the school, to the students and employers as well.

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

JB: It’s exciting to see how programs like this are transforming traditional academic transfer. The mission of the community college is support students’ completion of the first two years of their four-year degree and then transfer to a four-year institution to complete their bachelor’s degree. Traditionally, the academic transfer program hasn’t been extended to workforce, career or technical programs, which were traditionally considered to be “vocational education”—now called professional and workforce education—because they were not on the four-year track. I hope that that begins to dissolve over time. People need to realize that the differences between the two are not so concrete. For example, one of the programs we have within our district is a nanotechnology program. I don’t doubt that there are any number of four-year institutions doing nanotechnology as well, and we can begin to look and see these things that are being taught in the professional technical programs are in-demand from industries. Four-year institutions need to look at this shift and see they have a role too.

Four-year institutions can reinforce these more technical fields that I think traditionally have not been imagined through the lens of academic transfer. I hope the stackable programs offered by four-year institutions can lead to a wider discussion where four-year leaders look at this and see how these programs lead into their engineering schools or natural degree progressions at the four-year college.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the value of stackable credentials and the way they could evolve over the coming years?

JB: I think higher education leaders really have to think hard about where we are. I think there’s a traditional, successful profile of students that have always worked well at the community colleges and the four-year institutions and I think we will continue to serve those students well. The stackable programs are a compelling, cutting edge way to look at how we can serve that audience even better.  I don’t want to disparage the work that’s being done to try to reach those students, but we need to be more intentional. Higher education is going to have to reach people we’ve never reached before and that means we’re going to have do it in a different way and we’re going to have to think differently and I think stackable certificates start to get us down that path.

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