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Cathy Sandeen Headshot

Toward a Permeable, Interconnected Higher Education System

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In my former role as a dean at the University of California Los Angeles, I helped thousands of typical American college students gain the knowledge and skills needed to become informed, engaged citizens and progress in their chosen careers.

But as the dean of UCLA Extension, these "typical" students were a diverse group of nontraditional learners searching for ways to earn postsecondary degrees and credentials, often while juggling family responsibilities and jobs that meant frequent stops and re-starts for their postsecondary experience -- very different from the first-time college students attending UCLA straight out of high school but representative of the current face of American higher education.

We strived mightily at UCLA to help nontraditional students achieve their goals, whether it was to enter and complete a bachelor's degree program after many previous attempts to gain a degree or to earn a specialized certificate or credential needed for career advancement. Those efforts are mirrored at many higher education institutions today as two-thirds of all college or university students in the United States now fall into this nontraditional, or what I prefer to call post-traditional, category. When I look at this big picture, I often ask, are we doing all we can to meet the needs of these students?

The sheer size and diversity of our higher education system has long been a pillar of strength, distinguishing U.S. postsecondary education from the rest of the world. But that also means our wide array of institutions -- two-year and four-year, public and private, research and liberal arts -- have operated more as a federation with reasonably strong communication and connections between institutions than as a truly interconnected structure.

It is time to create a more streamlined pathway into and through American higher education, a true system that helps more Americans enter and complete postsecondary degrees, credentials and certificates. It should provide multiple entry points for students at different points in their lives, with numerous on-ramps to enable obstruction-free progress toward a degree or various types of career-enhancing certificates and credentials. An interconnected system will benefit all students through their lifetimes, traditional as well as post-traditional.

It is important to remember that the United States ranks just 14th globally in the proportion of its population with a postsecondary degree and that five years from now more than 60 percent of all U.S. jobs are predicted to require some level of postsecondary education. But it's also important to note that there is no one-size-fits-all solution and that different post-traditional learners face a variety of circumstances and have a plethora of postsecondary educational needs.

What's needed is not a demolition of our traditionally diverse higher education system but, rather, an ambitious renovation that knocks down some walls and opens up new doors -- building on assets that already exist.

Here are some ways to open those doors:

  • Degree-granting institutions. We know many students transfer among different institutions on their pathway to a degree or credential. Smoother articulations among institutions -- greater credit mobility -- would speed their progression. Anecdotes abound concerning students repeating a course, like English composition, again and again as they transfer from one location and college to another. This is not a good use of time or financial resources, and is a frequent barrier to post-traditional learners achieving their higher education goals. As an academic decision, best made by each institution, faculty will need to be engaged in this process.
  • Non-degree certificates and credentials. Current U.S. postsecondary attainment goals include various forms of credentials and professional certificates in addition to traditional degrees, also known as "high quality certificates with labor market value." These certificates should be "stackable" or "modular," allowing someone to amass recognized and validated competencies over time, so that a person does not get stuck in an educational dead end. For instance, an individual could earn a certificate immediately following high school or GED test completion, join the workforce for a while, then complete more advanced certificates and eventually a degree program. Some courses from certificates also could conceivably "count" toward a later degree, giving the motivated student a jump start. Postgraduate certificates could be "stacked" or added to an existing degree indicating mastery of knowledge and skills that evolve in one's field over time or for individuals who wish to modify their career path.
  • Digital badges are modeled on the iconic Boy/Girl Scout badge. Badges tend to acknowledge narrow and specific work-related skills and competencies and currently are a new form of alternative micro-credentialing not linked to formal academic credit, but they are evolving as a way to capture, validate and display a range of credentials--a sort of "next-generation" resume.
  • Massive open online courses (MOOCs) were initially designed for and attract the lifelong learning or "leisure learning" market that is not interested in seeking credit. Nevertheless, a small percentage (and relatively large numbers) of students who completed their courses successfully have great interest in credit. If credit can be awarded for these courses, and faculty at institutions agree to accept that credit, MOOCs may count toward certificates or degrees at various points in the system, thus speeding up a student's progression.
  • Prior learning assessment. Prior learning assessment encompasses various methods for validating and providing academic credit for formal learning that does not take place on a college or university campus, such as credit by examination, course review and portfolio review.
  1. Some forms of credit by examination, like Advanced Placement and CLEP exams, already are very familiar and accepted by many institutions.
  2. Course review is a process for examining formal learning that did not take place in a university setting (such as military training and occupations, and corporate/workplace education and training) and issuing recommendations regarding university-level credit equivalencies. The American Council on Education College Credit Recommendation Service (ACE CREDIT) is one example. ACE CREDIT currently oversees approximately 150 reviews per year, conducted by teams of faculty reviewers who apply national standards that are highly aligned with those used by most institutions when they approve their own new courses. ACE supports a network of 2,000 institutions that have a practice of considering credit recommendations, with individual credit decisions at the discretion of each institution.
  3. Portfolio review is a more complex process that involves the creation of a portfolio that captures and documents formal learning a student might have accomplished through exams, coursework and various other experiences. A faculty member reviews the portfolio and subsequently makes recommendations about credit equivalencies.

All categories of prior learning assessment are particularly appropriate for those post-traditional learners who have some college but no degree and likely have amassed a number of additional formal learning experiences since leaving campus.

The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce has determined that $772 billion is spent annually in the United States on postsecondary education, but that only 35 percent of that occurs on a college or university campus. The proper and appropriate application of prior learning assessment is a way to capture that significant national investment and also to provide post-traditional students recognition of prior learning, giving them confidence and a head start toward their next degree or certificate while also saving them time and money.

Helping more Americans gain a college degree or other postsecondary credentials is critical to our nation's future well-being, but it's not a goal easily attained. Technological and pedagogical innovations show promise and have spurred healthy conversations, but aren't a cure-all. What is needed is a much more systemic innovation: The construction of new and accessible pathways to create a true post-traditional higher education system.