How Can We Better Communicate the Meaning of New Credentials?

March 13, 2017

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By Laurie Arnston

As postsecondary education becomes more complex and the number of credentials, badges, certificates and degrees increases, there is a growing need to understand the hows and whys of the available options.

A Sunday morning session at ACE2017 looked at the work of Credential Engine, a nonprofit organization established to create an open-source registry to help stakeholders share information about credentials, as well as more broadly at what’s driving the need for credentials in higher education.

In his opening remarks, Stuart Dorsey, president of Texas Lutheran University, emphasized the need for quality assurance and a feedback loop in the burgeoning credentials area, and said that the myriad of credit options need to be differentiated.

Joellen Shendy, associate vice provost and registrar at the University of Maryland University College (UMUC), discussed her institution’s work on investigating what a comprehensive framework for credentialing would look like. UMUC serves over 90,000 students worldwide, including a significant population of military students, and is one of the largest distance learning institutions in the world.

The institution is one of a dozen colleges involved in the Comprehensive Student Record Project, a partnership between the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO) and NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education to explore how to collect, document and distribute information about student learning and competencies, including what is learned outside of the traditional academic classroom.

The project, which launched in 2015, is funded by a $1.27 million grant from Lumina Foundation.

“We’d like to create something like,” Shendy said about UMUC’s extended transcript project, which will produce a digital document that focuses on student outcomes and competencies, including links to artifacts and verification of the knowledge, skills and abilities the student has demonstrated.

Michael Reilly, executive director of AACRAO, said his organization has been looking at what constitutes a transcript since the AACRAO first began in 1910. It is now focusing on competency-based education (CBE) to help facilitate the “mobility of outcomes” and respond to the increasing interest in validation among employers, higher education institutions and students.

The question is, he asked, should CBE be an open market, or should it be quality assured? After all, B.A.’s last a lifetime—or at least, they used to.

Ralph Wolff, president of the Quality Assurance Commons for Higher and Postsecondary Education, said there seems to be a consensus that a bachelor’s degree doesn’t necessarily signal readiness for the workplace anymore. All the new developments in CBE are an exciting opportunity for higher education to work with the business community to define what does signal the kind of preparation they are looking for.

An audience member from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill brought up the issue of linking these new credentials to traditional programs, an issue his institution is working on. The panelists said that these connections should be part of the CBE movement—and as long as the quality and rigor of the content of the nontraditional credits is assured, they will become more common. Employers are more interested in skills assurance than in putting new hires through training programs, and there is an increasing interest in figuring out how to signal to employer that students—even those with 4-year degrees—are job-ready.

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