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Blurring the Lines Between Credit and Non-Credit Offerings

Higher ed’s new normal will require closer collaborations across the institution, which means blurring the lines between credit and non-credit to provide learners with a seamless interaction with the institution. 

As higher education navigates its way out of the pandemic, there’s still work to be done to prevent similar disruption in the future. Institutions need to be more flexible, nimble and responsive to the evolving market and learner demands to thrive.  

This article is a segment from the webinar, “Insights on Higher Ed’s Next Normal”, focused on higher education’s new normal, and shares insights from presidents of higher ed institutions about what this new normal will look like and what institutions need to do to survive and thrive in this new environment.

Amrit Ahluwalia (AA): How do we get away from the cultural divide between credit and non-credit? 

Madeline Purmariega (MP): There are a few ways to look at it. One would be industry certifications; they go hand in hand with rigor. Where we can match to those industry certs, that’s important. Second, matching certifications and skills to industry competency also begins to address that. The third aspect is that we shouldn’t just abandon applied knowledge. In order for us to be competitive as a country, we have to be able to graduate global citizens that have that applied knowledge. 

We’ve seen disruptions in our ecosystem over the last decade that tend to be policy-driven. Whether it’s federal policy, state policy, performance metrics or pay incentives for success, the next set of disruption will be driven by consumers. 

These consumers are our students.They will  expect our institutions to provide an Uber-style education experience. They get on an app, know where they’re going, how much it’s going to cost, when they’re expected to arrive and identify their preference is in the modality. Are we prepared for that kind of disruption?

Sue Ellspermann (SE): We must know what offerings need to be on the menu, and that’s employer-driven. In higher ed, we don’t listen enough to our employers when developing programming—and developing them from their perspective.  We have to make sure we’re delivering the right programming in the right place at the right time. All credentials need to be aligned so we can guarantee to students that they will have a good job or a great career on the other end of that credential.

Part of the accountability comes from ensuring that we’re filling the right talent pipeline across our states—and our nation.

Thomas Stith (TS): As we look toward the future, we need to be very cautious to avoid assumption. No one has ever been through a global pandemic, and we are still in the midst of it. It’s all the more important to listen to our customers, and our customer are our students. But also, who are we aligned with? What product are we producing? That’s for the business and industry.

If we’re not listening to our primary customer (the student) and the consumer (business and industry), then there’s going to have a significant disconnect. We can’t make assumptions based on pre-pandemic ideas.

The world has changed. We won’t be going back to normal—we will define it differently as we move forward. Those of us in higher education need to be very well attuned to our customers, as do potential employers as well.

Frank Dooley (FD): Central to all of this is that learning coming to us had to be assessed, then somehow put into a registry. One of the challenges institutions face is an abundance of initiatives, and we’re wearing out our registrar’s office. 

At the end of the day, we need some standards—ones that tell us when a student has attained a particular level. There’s also this underlying concern of Title IV and what funding be available. Now, when you get to the question of equity, if there isn’t going to be funding to support the educational opportunity, how are we going to address these problems?

AA: How do you create connection points when it comes to incentivizing non-credit offerings to main campus, so the value of non-credit education is recognized outside the traditional structure?

Phil Regier (PR): Continuing Ed units were developed 40 or 50 years ago in a work ecosystem fundamentally different from what we face today. It goes back to the idea of lifelong learning, students coming in and out of the institution, learner agency. You have to seriously question what your Continuing Ed unit looks like and whether it really does serve as a pillar for everything institution does.

At ASU, we created a learning enterprise unit to stand along academic enterprise. The academic enterprise is in charge of degree-granting authority, the learning enterprise, all the other things that we’ve been talking about.

Now, we have developed the means and ability to incentivize academics to provide degrees. We have to rethink the incentive system for Continuing Education in the same way. We can’t continue to say we’re going to charge $50 per head for a service, when you might get 40% and the provost office takes 60%. We need to be sustainable, but we should avoid thinking that we can’t incentivize faculty appropriately to engage. They have the required knowledge and understanding.

Continuing Ed courses are more straightforward than a degree-granting environment. We need to scale. Once you can scale, you can figure out the appropriate incentive compensation to get departments to engage—and faculty want to engage. By the way, you’re going to end up hiring a lot of faculty lacking traditional academic credentials in this space, but that’s okay.

MP: Continuing Education is known to exist in its own silo. They’re in a building in the back—you have to drive around and can’t find them easily. Those days are gone. The opportunities are integrating. Our engineering and technology dean has deployed a suite of non-credit offerings in his division through collaboration with Continuing Education. 

When we’re doing rapid credentialing and responding to the county or state, we’re using the arm of Continuing Ed that gives us a frictionless student experience. I challenge our credit side of house to think about what they can learn from CE. With our strategy, we’re looking to embed those CE offerings into the portfolio.

AA: How do we help students who need funding in this new microcredential system gain the support to afford a non-credit or a non-degree educational offering? 

SE: We’ve proposed that any microcredential progressing someone above median wage is the barometer against we measure ourselves, anything above median wage. We know that changes over time, but we think it’s a fair estimate of a credential’s value. If it doesn’t hold value, then federal financial aid ought to re-consider covering it, and we’re happy to be held to that standard.

Beyond that, you look for other sources of funding from industry or the state. Indiana has been very good about supporting shorter-term microcredentials. Over 100 are approved and state-funded at this point. It’s last dollar. 

TS: Business and industry are very interested in a post-COVID world. We’re having conversations about providing some of the funding that is currently unavailable. We’re having these discussions because of  this tremendous pressure on the workforce. Some of the non-traditional sources outside what we may have previously received certainly need to be explored. I think the private sector is very interested in that.

PR: My suggestion is that you view many of these offerings as pathways to programs that give you a return on your investment. All of us understand that we move back into the institution. It may be used for financial aid, to fund research, et cetera. But we started providing very low-cost—what we call open-scale courses—who did not meet the qualifications to get into the university. They could prove themselves worthy to pursue a degree with those offerings. Now, we offer those programs at a loss—they’re very expensive to develop, but we offer them to students very inexpensively. It is based on the agreement that students pass four of their courses with an A or a B to be automatically admitted to the university.

It’s almost a marketing tool, to get them into a program where then can earn a residual. And it benefits both the students’ and the university’s interests. There are creative ways to offer very low-cost programs that don’t qualify for federal financial aid.

MP: When you think about how we’re working with business and industry, there is a place for business and industry to partner with us in their talent management strategy. That should include some of the non-traditional tuition reimbursement programs—not only looking at federal policy but how we work with business and industry to ensure they’re leveraging these programs to meet their talent goals.

FD: We’re beginning to have more conversations and see more B2B work developing as a pipeline to our institution. When we go to those meetings, we have to ask how that training articulates—not into free electives but into courses integrated into degree program. That’s what’s going to speed up time to degree.

This interview was edited for length and clarity. 

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