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Education Trends

New Opportunities in 2021: Improved Academic Mobility, Flexible Degree Attainment and Skills Verification

The pandemic has accelerated trends in alternative credentials that will be essential to student success in an evolving higher education landscape.

group of college grads

While the coronavirus pandemic has certainly presented challenges and highlighted significant issues within higher education, it has also accelerated changes that were coming anyway. Higher education institutions are being forced to grapple with three large-scale converging trends that in normal times would have undergone more lengthy deliberation and debate. But the pandemic has demanded immediate action to contend with academic mobility, degree attainment and the need for a common way to verify demonstrated skills.

Many students still pursue traditional degrees with all credits earned from a single institution, while a growing group of learners are obtaining micro-credentials, course credits and other certifications from multiple institutions with the hope of bundling them together at some point for a degree. This kind of academic mobility often arises from financial necessity, as students may not have the means to devote four years or more to a B.A. or M.A. As a result, students are turning to distance learning, community colleges and massive open online courses (MOOCs) for chunks of learning. 

Online education has upended traditional perceptions around the value of campus-based study, especially when it comes to providing students with specific skills needed for workplace advancement. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in the fall of 2018, there were nearly 7 million students enrolled in any distance education courses at degree-granting postsecondary institutions. At the top of enrollment is Western Governors University, a regionally accredited institution offering BA and MA degrees in business, technology, education and healthcare.

Schools like WGU were created with the explicit goal of preparing students for the demands of today's workplace, emphasizing competency-based, self-paced learning. This model provides students with the flexibility to complete their degree program on their own terms. Regional accreditation ensures that courses from Western Governors and other distance learning programs are eligible for consideration when transferring to another accredited institution.

leading distance/online learning institutions in the US by enrollment

Source: Guide2Research

But what about online course providers that are not independently accredited, such as MOOCs like Coursera and edX? These aggregators have assembled catalogs of lectures from acclaimed institutions like Harvard, MIT and Johns Hopkins into "mini" degrees and certifications. Upon completion, the student may receive transferable credit from the issuing institution.

These programs are legitimate ways to earn credit toward degree programs, but it's easy to see how they could go awry, especially with the meteoric growth of online program managers (OPMs) seeking independent revenue streams. OPMs have played a critical role in transforming in-person classes into online courses for leading institutions. They've gained significant experience and are able to create eye-catching and engaging content delivered by Ph.D.-level instructors from around the world.

There are no mechanisms in place to prevent an OPM from developing a college-level course and legitimizing it with credits granted by an accredited institution. Under new circumstances, these credits could be transferable even though the course content was not developed or delivered by the institution. This could be a concerning trend that both students and receiving institutions will need to be aware of.

In a related trend, numerous states are permitting reverse transfer to ensure students gain a credential that is meaningful to employers and that contributes to state-wide goals of post-secondary degree attainment. According to the Education Commission of the States, reverse transfer is "the process of retroactively granting associate degrees to students who have not completed the requirements of an associate degree before they transferred from a two- to a four-year institution."

Reverse transfer has become attractive because of the decline in enrollment at four-year institutions. In response, recruiters have started dipping into the community college population sooner – often before students have completed an associate degree. But these students often don't complete their B.A., leaving them with some college credits, but no final credential. A study conducted by the National Student Clearinghouse found more than 36 million students in the US left higher education with some credits yet no degree or certificate since 1993. Community colleges were the starting and last-enrolled institution for two-thirds (67 percent) of these students.

The study identified that about 10 percent of the total students had the highest potential to complete a degree if re-enrolled. This makes reverse transfer an important tool for four-year colleges to recruit these students. Even if they are unsuccessful at finishing a four-year degree, they are paying tuition to the institution and can complete their associate degree.

A common thread for students, institutions and employers is the desire for students to leave school with workplace skills that make them immediately employable. This is true for recent graduates and for lifelong learners who hope to improve their employment prospects or advance their careers.

Interoperable learning records (ILRs) are being studied as an achievable way to communicate skills between workers, employers, and education and training institutions with the goal of creating a single profile that represents all of an individual's abilities. The value of an ILR is that it would allow efficient and consistent comparison of a person's capabilities to fulfill specific job requirements.

The adoption of an ILR system would enable:

  • Employers to quickly assess whether a candidate has the requisite skills for the job;
  • Students to invest in learning specific skills for a desired job;
  • Workers looking for new jobs or career advancement to compare their skills to standard lists of occupational skill requirements; and
  • Educational institutions and training organizations to align learning with standard competencies and skills that are in high demand.

These opportunities represent only a slice of what lies ahead for higher education as the world emerges from the pandemic. The dramatic shift in the learning landscape highlights the ways that higher education must adapt to make degree attainment more flexible, achievable and relevant for the future workforce. 

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