5 models for how colleges can rethink credentials

With students growing reluctant to take on debt and employers focusing their hiring requirements, colleges are seeking ways to measure relevant technical and soft skills and expand their offerings beyond traditional two- and four-year degrees, explains a new report from the nonprofit Education Design Lab (EDL).

The report suggests five models institutions can use to address demand for a wider range of credentials, while also considering the need to keep tuition costs down and the availability of new learning technology.

Those models include: becoming a “Netflix-style” curator and distributor of educational content; offering services to assess coursework and other learning experiences; cracking the code on reconciling work and life experiences with how colleges and employers measure accomplishments; and being the bridge between higher ed and employers to understand the skills they seek in hires.

The report anticipates a world in which globalization and automation means workers will need to continuously learn and earn credentials. It also sees a need for a better way to capture and qualify the combination of work, life and educational experiences accumulated beyond the classroom.

None of this is exclusive to hard or technical skills, however.

“The liberal arts part of education, more important than ever, will need to be embedded on all fronts,” wrote Kathleen deLaski, EDL’s president and founder and author of the report, which looks at the nonprofit’s past five years of work with colleges.

It’s not the first look of late at different models colleges and universities can take to meet employer and student demands while escaping the irrelevance many institutions fear as cost concerns and the expansion of online education threaten to undermine the traditional model.

report this past fall from Deloitte’s Center for Higher Education Excellence and Georgia Tech’s Center for 21st Century Universities recommends five ways public institutions can respond to the combined headwinds of changing student demographics, a new crop of online competitors and lower levels of state funding. Among them are resource-sharing among campuses, partnering with the private sector, and, as deLaski suggests, developing relationships with employers and offering more lifelong learning opportunities.

Colleges have also been advised to think nationally by adding locations, partnering with other institutions and expanding online. Small colleges aren’t immune from needing to consider more wholesale change in order to respond to the challenges deLaski’s report notes. Among the recommendations in a 2017 white paper from Dominican University of California President Mary Marcy are tapping the professional and graduate degree market, which is inherently workforce-oriented.

The EDL report shows colleges are interested in developing ways for students to enter and exit institutions more easily — such as to finish a degree between major life events or upskill as a job requires — while maintaining some form of continuity in how their educational experience is measured and translated to other colleges and employers.

One key to making this all work for students, employers and colleges would be changes to the credentialing system. Embedding industry credentials in degree pathways is slowly gaining traction across higher ed. And although it has been mostly limited to technical and community colleges, that is starting to change.

But the challenges are not minor. They include costs, academic freedom concerns and a lack of evidence due to poor data capture that embedding industry credentials even works.

Federal oversight of aid available for alternative educational models such as competency-based education and shorter-term credentials also poses a challenge to getting universities to more broadly rethink the traditional approach to instruction and assessment. The non-degree credential market, too, is fast-growing, and it can be difficult for students to determine which programs are worth the investment, how they’ll integrate with other academic credentials and whether they’ll carry weight with employers.