Off-again, on-again students in a dozen states who have some postsecondary educational experience but no degree may soon be able to turn to a regional group for help in figuring out what they need to do to get a diploma in their hands.
The Midwestern Higher Education Compact has begun work on the Credential Repository for Education, Skills and Training (Midwest-CREST), a virtual bank for students to collect the credits they’ve earned from multiple colleges and universities, and then plot a clear path toward a degree. Students might turn to the repository already knowing where they want to enroll or to be recruited based on how their accomplishments fit with an institution’s degree requirements. Colleges and universities might be able to formulate a “bid” to help a student finish his or her degree, laying out the curriculum and costs associated with fulfilling graduation requirements.
“There are so many people out there with some college and no degree,” said Larry A. Isaak, MHEC’s president. “This would be a one-stop shop for institutions to view what people have and how that fits in with the institution’s requirements for degrees, whether the student’s already decided to enroll or hasn’t even considered that college or university."
The credit bank reflects the idea that one way for the United States to grow the proportion of the population with a college degree is to focus on getting people who have dropped out get back on track toward graduation.
Midwest-CREST is still in its early stages, Isaak said, and will go through at least a year of research and planning to formulate a system that functions for its 12 members -- Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota and Wisconsin.
The process will be complicated, with so many institutional and state variations, as well as countless determinations to be made about how to document and credit job training and work experience. Policy groups including the Brookings Institution’s Great Lakes Economic Initiative and Kansas State University’s Institute for Academic Alliances will contribute to those efforts. The latter will “set up an infrastructure, the legal agreements that have to be put in place, the policies and procedure for day to day activities to make it all work,” said Dawn Anderson, a project coordinator there.
The project will in part be funded by MHEC, but has also secured financial and symbolic support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It has awarded the compact $100,000  to explore the possibility of creating the repository.
Marie Groark, a Gates spokeswoman, said the foundation -- which has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in college completion initiatives for traditional-age students -- chose to back the effort because it would work “to build a system that doesn’t penalize people for their choices but helps to facilitate their progress to help them get through to earn a degree.”
Midwest-CREST, she said, is the first credit bank Gates has funded but is an idea that makes perfect sense in an era in which “most kids don’t just start at one school and finish there in four years or two years.” They may not finish at all and may not be considered “kids” by the time they accumulate enough credits to earn a degree.
Isaak said that since announcing the Gates grant earlier this month, he has heard from several member institutions and philanthropic groups interested in playing a role in creating Midwest-CREST. “There’s a real need to increase the number of people in this country who have a postsecondary certificate or degree,” he said. “Foundations and institutions understand that there are all these people out there with some work already done toward those goals.”
Linda L. Baer, senior vice chancellor for academic/student affairs for Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, is one administrator who’s expressed interest. Her system has been working with the University of Minnesota system, as well as public institutions in North Dakota, to determine “how we might coordinate better” to help students finish degrees they might begin at one institution and want to complete at another.
She said her system wants to “see where this opportunity might go.” If it “can help workers gain more certificates or competencies so that they can get into the workforce sooner or improve our employers’ productivity, we’re all in favor of that.”
Technical degrees might be a logical place for the collaboration to begin, she said, because “many industries have standard competencies they expect of all workers across the country.” The degree requirements for auto mechanics or nursing vary from institution to institution and from state to state, but may not be as dramatic as the departmental and institutional differences in the requirements toward a bachelor of arts degree.
Institutions, Isaak said, will have the ultimate authority "to decide whether to accept the credit, to define their own graduation requirements and so forth." But his hope is that institutions will figure out creative ways to educate and credential students. "This is an opportunity to take credits, put them all in one place, then see what is possible for a students and what they need to do to get a degree."