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Looking Ahead: Why Universities Need to Adopt the Credential Model

The EvoLLLution | Looking Ahead: Why Universities Need to Adopt the Credential Model
As colleges begin shifting into a credential programming structure, universities also need to be able to adapt to the new learner lifecycle.

The American education system has always valued the four-year education model, creating a stigma around two-year schools. But credentials are providing learners exactly what they need, fitting into the new learner lifecycle. Will universities get onboard? Anthony Carnevale discusses the importance of credentials, why they’re overlooked and how continuing education divisions are the start of something new.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why do you think certificates and sub-baccalaureate credentials are overlooked by university leaders?

Anthony Carnevale (AC): The American higher education system has only recently moved beyond standard degree formats. Two-year schools were originally an alternative to the four-year schools. But in the minds of most citizens, the college system in America is a four-year college system. They see four-year schools as the high end of the business. There, you make more money from the four-year students. For students, they generally believe a four-year school will make them more money. This may be true, but is not always the case.

In today’s world, 30 percent of people with associate degrees make more than people with bachelors. A lot of certificates also make more than two-year degrees. This wasn’t always true. Before the 80s, about 70 percent of good paying jobs didn’t require anything more than high school education. After the 80s, the labor market shifted away from that. Jobs for those without a high school diploma declined, while jobs requiring a diploma increased. Job requirements began to spike, making any education beyond high school more valuable.

What’s most striking about that change since then, is that people’s field of study became a substitute value for the years of education. From an economic view, if a particular field of study sold better in the labor market, then choosing that field became very important. In the end, institutions began to move into this space of credentials and sub-baccalaureate in a big way. There’s a bill on the hill now called the JOBS Act that’s drawing a lot of criticism from higher education experts. The act wants Pell Grants for short-term programs, but the response from the education system, in part, is, “That’s not what we’re about. We’re about issuing degrees.” But that’s not exactly true.

We’re at the point where the sub-baccalaureate world is already growing larger than the baccalaureate world. More and more, we’re trying to build both a postsecondary-level education system and a training system. We’re trying to build these systems that have a lot of choices in them, which is very disruptive.

So, the economy was able to change how we value knowledge and skill. The problem here is that the principal system we use to prepare people for work—workforce development—is the postsecondary education system. There’s friction over the fact that we really don’t have a training system, but there’s a movement towards including more training within the education system.

Evo: What can be done to emphasize the values of different credentials to both prospective students and administrators of postsecondary institutions?

AC: What the government has been gradually working on, and what we’re working on, is the change that’s occurring underneath the larger questions of free college and a college with no debt. These are indicators that higher education is now a frontline issue in the American public dialogue.

Since the Bush administration, we’ve always had wage records which allow unemployment insurance systems to see if someone is eligible for unemployment insurance. Then, Obama expanded this dramatically by tying those wage records to student transcript data. So, we now have data all the way down to the program level. With President Trump’s executive orders for all public and private institutions to report their data, we’re building a system that is transparent and therefore hopefully accountable to the consumers (students, their families, etc.). So far, we’ve built about 80 percent directly into the higher education system.

The next trick is going to be getting institutions to use this data to tell their students what will happen to them if they take a particular field of study. They can’t predict the future, but generally the evidence of graduates of the last five years can give us insight to; whether or not they got a job, how much they made, and how much progress they made in the labor market. Although it’s not always a deciding factor, people still want to know. We issued a report a month or so ago on earning returns over time from 4,500 institutions. We got about 400,000 to 500,000 hits a day. But the big question is where’s the counseling system that will use the data instead of relying on students to sort through this stuff by themselves.

Evo: Why is it important to expand access to sub-baccalaureate credentials?

AC: It will give people choices. They can decide to take a one-year certificate in heating, ventilation and air conditioning, go out in the labor market and make pretty good money, then go onto college. They can decide whether or not they want to get a two or four-year degree and at what kind of institution.

Students will find a great variation in earnings, returns, and employment attached to institutions and even more powerfully attached to programs. So, this offers choices and it does so in an era when nearly everyone has to make these choices now. Students need to be armed with information when they do choose where they want to go.

Evo: How viable is this stacking model in creating more access points to the university and more opportunities for learners to succeed?

AC: This will be even more important in the future because what we want in our education system is a set of relatively clear pathways — from the education you want, to a job in that field. That pathway may lead you through attending several institutions at different times. But we’ve not built these bridges and if anything, there are more roadblocks than bridges. What you want is a system of pathways that always moves you towards your education and career goals, and hopefully they overlap. All of this, along with a system of pathways that have a lot of exits and on-ramps that are clearly marked.

So, this is a work in progress. The American higher education system is of very a fragmented structure. Basically those 4,500 schools out there are institutions that are on their own. That is they all have a different business model, different target clientele, and there are very few pathways among them even in the public system.

Evo: What would you consider some of the levers that might compel a university leader to start shifting their institution in this more accessible and diverse credential direction?

AC: Well, we start out with a system that is very fragmented and resistant to change. When we look at the top colleges in America, they’re selective to students based on their test scores and ability to afford high tuition costs. Now, if you are firmly established in that world, which the top few hundred are, your game is pretty well set. Why would you change? The answer is they won’t.

So essentially what we’re talking about is, they don’t want to take students who’ve already been to another college. The first two years of a four-year college is where you make all your money because of the large class sizes. So having everyone at the school for four years builds this sense of community, especially with alumni. So, it’s kind of a dynasty model, where past generations help pay for the current generation. They’re not really interested in these kinds of changes.

Now if they’re public, they may not have a choice because the government is beginning to push the public system to be more fluid as a system of education and career pathways. But there are tough issues there. Politically, we’re gradually moving toward a system of free two-year colleges. If you tell the average American that everybody needs a four-year college degree nowadays, 60 percent or more will say they don’t agree. But there’s a sweet spot in this debate, which is pre-community college. That’s what’s happening pretty rapidly around the country to the extent where there’s money to do it.

We’re heading into a world where all these questions come up and people want more information for them to make decisions and negotiating these pathways, most of which don’t exist at the moment. That’s a whole other set of questions, but we’re coming to the point where the students themselves are building an education and career pathway of their own. The problem is that the institutions they’re dealing with aren’t very user friendly.

Evo: What effect does continuing education divisions have on institutions to make this credential shift?

AC: Continuing ed divisions are the early signs of what will gradually become a lifelong learning system for the United States. Our model for the longest time was that you go and get an education, get a job and never return. That’s less and less true now. There are large numbers of people who are going back to postsecondary institutions to get a certificate or to upskill. What we’re trying to build is an education and training system that has this lifelong learning component to it. But what’s happening is that people are trying to use current institutions for that purpose and it’s not easy. They weren’t built for that. So now we need to find ways to connect these institutions.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the importance of making certificates and associate’s credentials more accessible?

AC: We’re getting to the point where we have the information, the issue is in the public postsecondary system. Having information isn’t useful if people don’t know to convey it to their audience. You can simply put it on a website, but a lot of this information needs a counselor of some kind to help prospective students through the process of thinking about their education and career.

So, it’s a system we haven’t built yet, but the emerging problem is that there’s a new stage in the life cycle for young people, where they won’t get married and have a family until later in life. Institutions are used to the older way of life where people graduated high school, got a job, got married and then started a family all before the age of 25. This new lifecycle doesn’t have the structure to support them.

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