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Unifying Statewide Education to Create a Credential Ladder

The EvoLLLution | Unifying Statewide Education to Create a Credential Ladder
Creating a unified postsecondary system that allows students to use past credentials to build towards advanced credentials is critical to meeting the educational demands of an advanced, knowledge-based workforce.

The higher education system is notoriously slow to change, but widespread concerns about the value of a postsecondary education combined with high demands for specific skills from employers have pushed innovation in the credentialing space forward. In Washington, state legislators are finding ways to create a unified credentialing system that helps learners move towards advanced degrees through a stackable model. In this interview, Jan Yoshiwara discusses the importance of stackable credentials for today’s learners and shares her thoughts on what it takes to create a higher education system designed for stackability.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are some of the most significant problems with the standard approach to credential gathering, especially when it comes to achieving higher levels of certificates and degrees?

Jan Yoshiwara (JY): In the distant past, workforce (professional-technical) certificates and degrees were treated as standalone credentials rather than as building blocks to higher levels of education. Students found themselves in an either/or situation. They either earned a short-term certificate or a long-term certificate. They either earned a two-year workforce degree—with little transfer opportunity toward a bachelor’s degree—or a two-year transfer degree that would put them at the junior level at a university. This siloed approach limited students’ upward mobility both in terms of the types of credentials they earned and in their ability to build on their educations to meet the changing demands of the workforce.

Washington state, and many other states, now recognize that every credential should serve as a stepping stone to the next phase of a person’s educational journey. Each is designed to have value in its own right, and yet lead to an even higher credential. This approach helps students become upwardly mobile both in college and in their lives. That’s the beauty of community and technical colleges: our open-door policies and interconnected programs elevate lives, and in doing so, we elevate economies.

Evo: How do stackable credentials help to overcome these obstacles?

JY: We know that longer credentials lead to greater gains, so short-term certificates are often designed to build upon each other toward a longer credential. A great example of stackable certificates can be found at Everett Community College. The college has a new 37,000-square-foot Advanced Manufacturing Training & Education Center (AMTEC) to train students for high-demand jobs in manufacturing and aerospace. The center brings together six programs: manufacturing pre-employment, computer numerical control (CNC) machining, composites, engineering technician, welding and fabrication, and quality assurance. The programs are short, stackable and lead to a professional certificate or degree. What’s more, graduates are snapped up quickly by employers.

At Whatcom Community College in Bellingham, Washington, Early Childhood Education certificates allow students to earn progressive credentials as they work toward a full two-year associate degree, if desired, and to specialize in an area of interest.

At Highline College, students can start with a short-term certificate in global trade and logistics and then build up to a longer-term certificate, then an associate in applied science, and then to an applied bachelor’s degree.

With stackable credentials, students can get an immediate burst of information to stay current on their jobs or begin training for a career, and then progressively build on their educations.

Evo: To your mind, how can the stackable concept be expanded to create a higher education ecosystem entirely focused on constant upward motion?

JY: Stackable credentials are part of a larger mission: to connect college programs—like rungs in a ladder—so students can always climb higher. In Washington, this mission drives programs all the way from adult basic education through to bachelor’s degrees.

For example, all of our colleges now offer I-BEST (Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training) classes. These classes use a team-teaching approach, with both instructors in the same class. One instructor teaches basic skills and the other teaches either a professional-technical skill—like medical assisting—or a college academic subject. These programs defy the traditional notion that students must take all their adult basic education classes before they even start on a professional-technical program or a transfer degree. Basic skills students are automatically embedded in a career or academic program as part of their basic skills training.

Several of our colleges are beginning to use a “guided pathways” approach to improve students’ progress through college. Students are given clear, deliberate, simple course choices that lead to certificates and degrees. Within one or two terms, students are directed into intentional pathways that lead to credentials. Guided pathways are to students what GPS systems are to drivers—a step-by-step set of directions to a final destination. College Spark Washington has graciously provided grant funding for this work.

Our community and technical college system has a very strong relationship with four-year public and private universities. Statewide transfer agreements in Washington allow students with two-year transfer degrees to transfer to universities at the junior level.

For students who earned non-transferrable professional-technical degrees, 15 of our 34 community and technical colleges now offer applied bachelor degrees in fields such as radiation and imaging sciences, cybersecurity, data analytics and manufacturing operations. Applied bachelor’s degrees fill skill gaps in practical, market-driven fields where job requirements have advanced beyond the associate degree level. They add junior and senior levels to two-year professional-technical degrees—such as a radiation technology degree—that would otherwise not transfer and count toward bachelor’s degrees at universities. The degrees vary from a two-year management track on top of a two-year technical education, or a continuation of a professional-technical degree. Students build upon their already valuable two-year degrees to land higher-paying jobs and promotions, while employers get the additional skill sets they seek in bachelor’s degrees.

Applied bachelor’s degrees arguably offer the best of both worlds: hands-on training in a career embedded within a four-year degree. Employers seek graduates because they have technical expertise combined with communication, computation, critical thinking and people-management skills.

All these approaches share a common goal: to keep students moving forward.

Evo: What are some of the most significant roadblocks standing in the way of the development of such a system?

JY: One of the biggest challenges is to figure out how to expand successful programs statewide. Fortunately, Washington benefits from a unified community and technical college system. All 34 of our colleges and the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges work together on common policies to benefit our collective students, and college presidents meet every month. Likewise, members from key service areas—like student services and business administration—meet regularly. This allows colleges to share ideas and best practices, and our system to secure grants.

We must continually challenge ourselves to use disruptive thinking, to challenge traditional ways of operating and focus on student success. And, colleges receive part of their funding based on a performance-funding system. Colleges earn points, with funding attached, when students reach key academic momentum points, such as finishing college-level math, completing the first year of college, and earning a certificate or degree. The goal is to propel students to and through the “tipping point”—the level of education that means the difference between struggling in a low-wage job and having a career that leads to a better life.

The ability to “scale-up” successful programs, to work cooperatively, and to make bold changes is important but difficult work. It takes trust among institutions and it takes time.

Evo: How would this “stackable” ecosystem ultimately benefit students?

JY: Students benefit because they have a way to move forward to bigger and better jobs and careers. Every credential is designed to spark an even higher level of achievement. This benefits not only students, but everyone in the state as well.

These days, a college education is one of the few remaining bridges to the middle class. With our open-door policies, community and technical colleges allow anybody to step on that bridge, at any time in their lives. We take students from where they are, to where they want to be. Long gone are the days when most college students were 18 and right out of high school. Today, people need to be life-long learners to keep pace with a rapidly changing world. Our nation’s two-year colleges make that all possible.

Here in Washington, the legislature has endorsed two key educational goals for our state by 2023: that 100 percent of Washingtonians have a high school diploma or equivalent, and 70 percent have a college credential. If we’re going to meet those goals, we have to tap into the talents of the adult population because the population of young high-school graduates is not large enough to meet these goals. Community and technical colleges are open to anybody and located where people live, work and raise their families.

As individual students rise and become more prosperous, so does our economy. Students bring their skills and purchasing powers back to local economies. They become the entrepreneurs, taxpayers, employees and community members who make economies thrive.

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