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If the United States is to meet former President Obama’s 2020 goal of having “the highest proportion of college graduates in the world,” the nation’s college campuses will have to significantly up their game. How can colleges and universities get more Americans to academic and professional success? Certain answers are obvious.

Colleges and universities need to adopt:

High-impact teaching strategies that enhance student engagement and motivation through:

  • active learning pedagogies that involve inquiry and problem-, project-, and team-based learning
  • differentiated instruction to meet students where they are, and
  • immersive and highly social learning experiences that involve simulations and collaboration.

Flexible and convenient delivery modalities to meet the needs of non-traditional students, including hybrid, fully online, low residency, accelerated, emporium, weekend, and intersession classes.

A more integrated, proactive, and holistic set of student support and skills building services, including:

  • a one-stop center for admissions, advising, financial aid, registration, and records;
  • support programs to assist students with time and money management, study skills, and test-taking;
  • a student success center focusing on reading, writing, and quantitative skills; and
  • life coaching to assist students with challenges outside the classroom.

A data-driven approach to the student experience that:

  • monitors students’ progress
  • identifies curricular bottlenecks, including roadblock courses
  • triggers alerts when students are off track or in danger of failing, and
  • sends behavioral nudges to encourage students to take steps to maximize their prospects for success.

But the most important driver of student success is to redesign the learning journey to expedite the pathway to a meaningful credential and ensure that students acquire the breadth of competencies – including the liberal arts skills, 21stcentury literacies, and marketable skills – essential to success in today’s knowledge economy.

For far too long, there was only a single successful pathway to a meaningful post-secondary credential: Degree pathways that required a minimum of either two or four years to complete. Now that a post-secondary credential is essential for obtaining a middle-class job and income, we need new pathways to bring many more postsecondary students to academic and career success. Here are a series of promising strategies to increase postsecondary success.

1. A Modularized Curriculum
A modular curriculum disaggregates existing courses into shorter, focused units, with clearly identified learning objectives.

From the student perspective, a modular curriculum allows a learner to take only those modules that are most relevant and to move through the modules at an optimized pace. From a faculty perspective, mastery of individual modules is easier to assess – and individual faculty members can develop those modules in which they have the most expertise. At the same time, dividing the curriculum into modules rather than courses makes it much easier to update curricular components, identify and remediate areas of student confusion, create new units tailored to emerging industry needs, and personalize learning pathways. Another advantage of a modularized curriculum is that self-contained modules can be re-used in a variety of curricular pathways.

Modular design runs the risk of fragmenting knowledge and skills into discrete, disconnected units and creating a disjointed student experience. Therefore, it is essential that the modules align seamlessly and transparently, offer opportunities for repeat practice, and incorporate assessments that test proficiencies acquired in earlier modules. If a modular approach is not simply going to be a form of programmed learning, it is important that individual modules give students opportunities for research, active learning, problem solving, and practical application.

2. A Competency-Based Curriculum
A competency-based curriculum awards credit based on mastery of essential knowledge and skills rather than seat time. In practice, competency-based education tends to emphasize credit for prior learning and a self-paced, self-directed approach to pedagogy.

Advantages of a competency-based curriculum include clearly-defined learning objectives, an emphasis on project-based skills building activities, and rigorous assessments of mastery. By awarding credit for prior learning, this approach can expedite time to completion.

But such an approach is subject to justified criticisms. Too often, students lack adequate interaction with a faculty member or with peers, fail to receive sufficient feedback from subject matter experts, and do not get the kind of guidance and support taken for granted by students in more traditional programs.

If competency-based education is to become a credible alternative to a more traditional approach, then it must ensure that students receive regular, substantive interaction with and feedback from a genuine expert.

3. Stackable Credentials
Increasing numbers of students follow an unconventional educational path. They transfer from one institution to another. They take time off to work or care for their family. They switch between full-time and part-time enrollment.  Many eventually drop out, and are left with debt and without a meaningful credential.

One way to accommodate such students is to offer a series of academic and professional credentials that can “stack” into an associate’s, bachelor’s, or master’s degree. Many of these “alternate” or “integrated” credentials can, in turn, stand on their own, offering evidence of the proficiencies necessary for specific jobs.

A traditional transcript offers few insights into what a student is actually capable of doing. Alternative credentials – including digital badges, certificates, nanodegrees, and certifications – whether academic, industry, or professional, can demonstrate a student’s knowledge and proficiencies in ways that traditional degrees cannot.

Alternate credentials, unlike traditional degrees, do not require a minimum of two or four years to vest. Many “middle-skills” jobs require a postsecondary credential but not a bachelor’s degree. But several obstacles impede widespread acceptance of such credentials. Currently, many alternative credentials are ineligible for financial aid. Many lack rigorous, uniform assessment standards.  And many are not yet recognized by various accrediting bodies. Unless these alternative certifications achieve clearly defined quality assurance standards and widespread recognition, there is a danger that they will not be accepted by the job market. That is why it is essential to develop an integrated credentialing ecosystem.

Among the advantage of alternate credentials is that they can validate discrete skills and competencies, help close skills gaps by identifying areas of high employment demand, and enhance the value of traditional degrees especially in the humanities and fine arts by ensuring that these students can demonstrate marketable skills.

4. Structured or Guided Pathways
One reason that too many students fail to graduate is that they lack a clear roadmap to a degree. Faced with an overwhelming number of course options and confusing requirements, students wind up with many “wasted” or “excess” credit hours. Many would benefit from a more optimized, coherent, and synergistic curriculum, even at the expense of choice.

Structured pathways consist of predefined courses or modules, with few electives, that lead to a degree. Structured pathways need not be narrowly vocational. The most robust structured pathways integrate liberal arts courses into a thematically unified curriculum, ensuring that the humanities, fine arts, and social sciences courses contribute meaningfully to the themes and methodologies of the more technical STEM classes. The goal is to produce well-rounded professionals.

5. Learn and Earn Models
Learn and earn pathways combine an academic curriculum with relevant work experiences. The goal is to blend the strengths of a traditional academic experience with career exploration, job training, experiential learning, and real-world professional, technical, and soft skills development.

Learn and earn models take a wide variety of forms. There are federal work-study programs, in which a student typically works in their undergraduate institution or a community non-profit as a way to earn money to apply to their educational expenses. Even though such students can receive academic credit for their work-study job, they cannot be paid for formal instruction. There are, of course, also internships, externships, and apprenticeships, supervised off-campus work experience that can be paid or unpaid.

A more integral, institutionalized part of a student’s educational experience is a practicum – a field or clinical experience where a student typically works under the direction of a field or clinical supervisor and has the opportunity to apply theory to professional practice. Practicums are most common in such pre-professional fields as social work or nursing.

The most formal and oldest learn and earn model is cooperative education, which combines paid employment and formal study as a requirement for graduation. In certain instances, students alternate terms of academic study and paid internships; in other instances, each week is divided between time spent in the classroom and on the job. Prime examples of cooperative education are found at Drexel and Northeastern universities.

6. Pipeline Programs
As increasing numbers of students at four-year institutions acquire credits in high school or community college, and many others receive meaningful training in the military or from non-credit providers and various work experiences, credit transfer and credit for prior learning have become pressing issues. Currently, however, the pipeline to a degree is quite leaky. In Texas, just 20 percent of 8th graders ever receive a post-secondary credential of any kind. In New York State, the figure is scarcely higher.

Part of the solution to the community college transfer challenge lies in improvements in articulation agreements that assign common numbers to general education and gateway courses and guarantee transferability. But a growing body of research suggests that such agreements are insufficient in themselves.

Why is this the case? Because of mismatched expectations and divergent learning objectives in community colleges and four-year institutions; uneven academic preparation among many transfer students; poor alignment among community college and university courses; and curricular roadblocks and requirements that make it difficult for community college students to apply credits toward their major.

To address these challenges, four-year institutions, community colleges, and military training programs need to work together to agree on learning objectives, coverage, and assessments. A step in that direction is for these institutions to work together to develop common competency and outcomes graphs.

Credit by examination offers another way to validate previous learning or military or work experience. Credit by exam is not new. The College Board has offered CLEP (College Level Examination Program) exams since the late 1960s. The U.S. Department of Defense DSST (Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Education Support) also assesses prior learning. CLEP and DSST are standardized, high stakes, multiple-choice tests.

Whether these tests align well with college expectations is a subject of ongoing debate. An alternative might involve a project- or a portfolio-based assessment which might provide a better measure of a student’s command of relevant material and higher-order skills.

Steven Mintz is Executive Director of the University of Texas System's Institute for Transformational Learning and Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin.

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