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Community colleges must bridge the divide between noncredit and credit programs (opinion)

As the pandemic has wreaked economic upheaval and displaced millions of American workers, policy makers and the public have shown growing interest in short-term training and nondegree credentials as solutions to help people get back to work. At the same time, the national dialogue over systemic racism has renewed concerns about the role these nondegree programs have played in diverting those who are Black, Indigenous and people of color from higher levels of learning and the job opportunities that come as a result. The legitimate concern has emerged that the focus on short-term training for those who have been left most vulnerable by the pandemic could unintentionally exacerbate racial tracking in education.

This is where the conversation often turns to stackable credentials. In theory, credentials and coursework are “stacked” so that nondegree credentials clearly lead to a degree. Having a meaningful industry-recognized credential at the beginning of the stackable sequence allows students to develop skills and earn a credential that has salience in the marketplace so they can find much-needed work. Then, when the time comes to continue their education and take the next step in their career, those credentials can easily articulate -- or stack -- toward a higher-level certificate or degree. Stackability and portability can be key protections against the ill effects of tracking in nondegree programs.

But here’s the problem: many two-year institutions have erected a barrier between the noncredit and credit sides of their house, which makes stackable progression along pathways much more difficult to achieve. Let me explain.

At most community colleges across the country, a stark division exists between credit programs that lead to an associate’s or applied associate's degree and noncredit, technical training programs that lead to an industry-aligned certificate or certification of value (not a degree). Despite operating within the same institution, distinctions between noncredit programs and credit programs in structure, educational approach, faculty, technology and student resources can compound to make programs often feel worlds apart. While there are reasons for the separation of programs, and some distinctions are beneficial, other differences are simply by default or arbitrary. And so the two systems often exist separately, causing potential content duplication, lack of communication, false hierarchies and missed opportunities to collaborate and build well-articulated stackable pathways.

The structural divide hinders access and opportunities for far too many students. While many students who start in noncredit programs have expressed a desire to transition and further their education, the percentage of those who actually progress to degree programs is low. That is particularly true among students of color. One study found that while Black students are roughly as likely as white students to earn short-term certificates, Black students are much more prone to end their education at this level, rather than pursue additional education. That occurs despite the fact that Black Americans receive the lowest wage premium on certificates when compared to all other demographic groups.

Five Key Elements

What can be done to change the current bifurcated system and the inequities it has fostered? It will take more than simply stacking noncredit certificates and certifications within degree programs. Rather, stackable credentials -- credit and noncredit alike -- must be incorporated into much larger improvement efforts that touch every corner of the community college infrastructure.

While alignment and integration are not easily achieved, some powerful examples can illustrate how it can be done. Over the last year, my organization has conducted detailed interviews and site visits with more than 50 community college leaders and policy experts who have begun the difficult work of bridging the gap between noncredit and credit divisions. The strategies and resources they have used, as well as detailed accounts of their approaches, have been captured in our new guide for institutions, systems and states looking to create more explicit pathways between noncredit and credit offerings.

Our research has not revealed any single institution that has achieved full alignment of noncredit and credit programs. Yet our conversations with experts and institutional leaders engaged in this work have resulted in the identification of five key elements of a new approach to bridging the divide.

No. 1: Ensure clear connections between noncredit credentials and relevant degree programs. Yes, embedding or stacking noncredit certificates within degree programs can create greater cohesion between the two divisions for students. The key is that the stackable credentials are intentionally designed, clearly communicated and bolstered by strong advising across noncredit and credit programs. In other words, the onus shouldn’t be on the students to figure it out on their own.

In one strong example of this approach, administrators at Cuyahoga Community College in Ohio restructured their programs to be clustered into Centers of Excellence. Each center has mapped its noncredit credential offerings to applied associate’s degrees. The institution’s attunement to credentials of value has resulted in exponential growth of awarding 20,000 certificates in 2019, up from just 4,000 certificates five years earlier.

No. 2: Make noncredit programs creditworthy or credit-based. High-quality learning experiences in industry-focused noncredit programs, whether tied to a credential or not, should count for credit. Some programs award credit for learning when students transition into credit programs through the use of bridge tools, such as credit matrices, articulation agreements or equivalency agreements. Credit-based programs go through the process to become accredited while maintaining labor-market orientation, putting students on a direct pathway to an associate’s degree.

Workforce Solutions at the Kentucky Community and Technical College System has been offering almost all short-term, industry-focused training as traditional credit courses since 2001. In doing so, it has been able to better align what was formerly noncredit training with state funding mechanisms, which flow directly into credit-based programs, while remaining responsive to employers. With this infrastructure in place, now, when new training offerings are developed, faculty make a credit recommendation based on competencies already approved and can quickly gain credit approval.

No. 3: Remove barriers to transition. Institutions should make transitioning easy for students by reducing the number of required forms and processes, providing navigational assistance, and offering similar course schedules across programs. Transitioning should be as automatic as possible and can be incentivized with opportunities for scholarships or other funding.

When data at Austin Community College in Texas showed that few students historically transitioned from noncredit to credit programs, it focused on facilitating the transition. The college designed customized rapid re-employment workforce programs that articulate into earn-and-learn credit programs with the same employers, whereby employees continue their education while working in order to help them advance. Much like Salt Lake Community College in Utah, which offers an institutional promise program that covers any financial aid gap for students who transition from completing a noncredit credential into a degree program, Austin Community College also plans to launch a two-year scholarship to address financial barriers to progression.

No. 4: Serve all students equally. To make the student experience across noncredit and credit programs more equitable, institutions must address structural inequities that disadvantage students in noncredit programs over those in credit programs. Those inequalities include a lack of student services, funding or financial aid, or access to other supports such as the computer lab and counseling services.

To best serve all students and ensure they thrive and complete their education, students in noncredit programs at Monroe Community College in New York receive advising on par with those in degree programs. Its Economic and Workforce Development Center uses a high-touch case management approach to support students in noncredit programs in finding employment and managing course schedules. As a part of their alignment efforts, the center will be given authority to oversee career services for the entire institution. That means students not only in credit programs but also in noncredit programs will interface with workforce staff, have access to career-spanning pathway maps and are informed by the center’s nationally recognized data on labor market demands.

No. 5: Align departments and governance. Strong coordination across noncredit and credit departments is key in scaling and sustaining successful alignment. Colleges should consider organizing relevant noncredit and credit programs into the same department or establishing joint leadership. Achieving alignment might also require modifications to the institution’s overall curriculum development and design process.

For example, when Prince George’s Community College in Maryland established its new Teaching, Learning and Student Success division, it brought together credit programs, noncredit programs and student services under one division lead. While noncredit and credit programs remain distinct, they restructured themselves to improve coordination across all facets of the departments. Faculty from noncredit and credit programs began working together to analyze labor market data, plan new offerings, launch them in noncredit programs and expand them to credit programs. The effort encouraged the college to examine how it collects data, registers students and structures position descriptions to incorporate alignment.

Whether institutions are ready for it or not, a sizable number of learners are barreling toward noncredit programs in an effort to better their lives amid a global pandemic. They can’t afford to get lost in the chasm between noncredit and credit programs. They need clear opportunities to build their skills and stack their credentials, and that will require community colleges to make intentional efforts to address the structural barriers that stand in the way. Achieving this alignment won’t be easy, but it’s absolutely necessary to ensure equity and economic mobility.

Matthew Gandal is president and CEO of Education Strategy Group and a former senior adviser to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

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Report: Improving Enrollment Health

Institutions need to rethink their offerings in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and its subsequent negative enrollment impacts, according to a new report from Ad Astra.

In the current recession, students are not looking for an education, the report argues. Instead, they're looking for training that will get them a good job.

In the last recession, students may have flocked to colleges for education and retraining, but many didn't achieve that goal. Completion rates at four-year institutions dropped by three percentage points in 2008 and 2009, according to the report.

The report argues that institutions need to be more thoughtful about their "completion promises" and create systems to give students defined paths to complete their majors on time.

For example, if a college offers a 100 credentials across three campuses and advertises that students can attend classes during the day, at night or online, students will likely think there is great flexibility. But the college likely isn't offering every major in every location and in every format, which students may not realize until it's too late.

To fix this problem, Ad Astra encourages colleges to examine their "enrollment health" by looking beyond how many students are enrolled in which majors, to what time, place and way they're taking courses. If a college has fewer than 10 students in any of those groups, it's indicative of a sustainability issue, the report states.

Once these are identified, institutions can implement metamajors to help improve sustainability and minimize the number of major-specific requirements that can't be shared with other majors.

Colleges must clearly communicate these changes and what courses can be offered in which ways. Annual scheduling can also help students plan ahead, the report states.

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Ethics education is vital today as students grapple with life-and-death decisions (opinion)

College and university ethics education has long been a form of character affirmation and civic advancement. Students learn to question ethical foundations acquired from their family and personal experiences to form a coherent philosophy of life that will guide their responses to dilemmas they will face in the future. To test this, discussion questions become versions of “Who gets voted off the island?” or “What happens when you face a no-win set of choices?”

The discussions are sometimes interesting and often purely academic in nature. Students don’t usually have to make these decisions, so they are free to argue broadly as a form of mental gymnastics. That is, until recently.

In educational institutions today, real life-and-death decisions are at hand. “If I contract COVID, do I quarantine myself on campus, where I am isolated and alone, or go home to be with my parents and risk infecting them?” “If I go to class, am I putting others in harm’s way?” “What consequences will I face if I choose to play or not play my sport?” “If a family member contracts the disease, will I ever get to see them again?” “What happens when friends contract COVID?” Life is now filled with risk and long-term consequences.

Higher education institutions have opened recently not only because of financial pressures, but also because they historically provide an optimal environment for students to live and learn. In a recent Axios survey, two-thirds of college students said they wanted to return to campus. Social isolation and loneliness are crucial issues for student-aged populations. A pre-pandemic survey that the American College Health Association conducted in 2017 found more than half of students “felt things were hopeless” over the last 12 months. During that same time frame, 86 percent “felt overwhelmed by the things you have to do” and 63 percent “felt very lonely.”

Emerging data confirm that the current conditions have exacerbated these problems. As educators reimagining education, it’s vital that we recognize these issues. In fact, we have. Student services have made radical changes to orientation, student expectations and even values statements, while professors are upping their teaching skills to accommodate new learning styles.

Still, even students who are seemingly well adjusted now find themselves in need of coping skills without the confidential resources universities often provide. Privacy is increasingly becoming a casualty of contact tracing. People and institutions who typically provide stability, such as advisers and student clubs, are now insecure themselves. Both students and parents find themselves succumbing to the pressures of the pandemic, particularly those who are front-line workers in the medical fields or working students who are losing their jobs, have their homes at risk or perceive an eviction looming. Stress relievers such as churches, mass sporting events and social gatherings are unavailable, uncertain or risky.

Adding to the complexity, between the election noise and social media fearmongering, people are making risky choices about how to respond to political uncertainty. Among those is the choice to purchase guns. In March, the second-busiest month for gun sales in history, people added more than three million guns to their personal arsenals. Forgotten is the fact that when “there’s a gun in the house, the chance of death by suicide more than triples.” Even without the suicide data, a lawyer comes with every bullet fired, which only compounds the stress. Additionally, uncertainty about the future, our jobs and our families continues to create anxiety. More children are now living with parents after college, and people are getting married older and having children later. Our society is changing.

“The Young Are at the Gates,” a phrase taken from a poem by Lavinia Dock during the women’s suffrage movement over 100 years ago, is apt today. Despite the challenging circumstances, young people remain fearless, hopeful and ready to embrace change. Today, their ethical foundations are tested or reinforced. They are learning important moral lessons: “take care of your neighbor” is one of them.

What impact might that have on our collective futures? Is the era of me thinking passing into one of us thinking? Our hope is that students are learning that personal choices and habits impact others. They are acquiring new communication patterns. At colleges and universities, they are learning to embrace people who are different from themselves, seeing them as wonders, not threats. Students are learning to embrace social media as a means of deep social connection rather than as a vehicle for popularity. They are banding together in support of widespread social justice reform.

Even during this time of immense stress and fear, student leaders are helping classmates to shut off negativity in favor of uplifting and mindful habits that will sustain them through this crisis and those in the future. For example, Armstrong Commons at my institution, Southern Methodist University, sponsors Serotonin Sundays, where students are encouraged to take care of themselves through a variety of activities, including taking a walk or playing an outside game. Other groups are working to make sure fellow students realize that there is joy in the new normal. They can still have food events that foster community, but the food is individually wrapped and served.

Our ethical standards are developed, not mandated. These are habits of mind and habits of heart. Whether through first-year orientation sessions, religious services, courses and lectures in theological or philosophical ethics, or student-to-student interactions, colleges and universities must engage in meaningful reflection and action.

For example, the Maguire Ethics Center at SMU just announced its first ethics contest with substantial prize money to encourage personal deliberation. Hampered by social distancing, religious groups are hosting outside worship, while social groups are conducting public service opportunities such as food drives and gathering supplies for homeless shelters.

Never has the role of student life offices on campus been so robust or so important. Rather than looking inward, they must produce models for students to encourage them look outward toward the things that will make life better. The discussion of principled responses to what’s happening in the world creates a situational awareness that will be a crucial foundation for the remainder of their lives. After all, our ethics will be displayed in the split-second decisions that we make in the uncertainty of the moment.

It’s time for us to recognize that the pandemic has forced choices on us. The way we treat and educate this generation must be a national priority. Educational institutions do not need a federal mandate do the right thing; they just need to focus on the people they serve, and beyond keeping students safe, they must gird them with a joy for living and steel to face the difficulties. No doubt, our lives have changed, our structures have changed and our priorities have changed. Yet our values can be our guiding force and we can emerge into a world we helped create that is better than the one behind us.

Yes, the young are at the gates.

Rita Kirk is an author and editor of the book Ethics at the Heart of Higher Education, William F. May Endowed Director of Southern Methodist University’s Maguire Center for Ethics and Public Responsibility, and distinguished professor in communications.

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