A new play's portrayal of the value of the liberal arts (essay)

A stint at a liberal arts college as the cure for economic hardship and social despair? As a way out of poverty and dead-end, low-wage employment?

That's hardly the conventional wisdom. Just ask around, and it’s easy to find someone who will tell you how useless it is to indulge yourself in the humanities or to become immersed in a broad selection of old-fashioned courses in the traditional arts and sciences, rather than going for marketable, albeit elusive, "skills." After all, as former Republican presidential candidate Senator Marco Rubio said in a Milwaukee debate last fall, welders make more money than philosophers. (Not true, as it turns out.)

Yet a detour back to the liberal arts is the subversive suggestion tucked away in Sweat, a stinging postindustrial stage drama of economic injustice by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage, which has played to mostly rave reviews in Oregon and Washington, DC, and will open next fall in New York. At a critical moment in the action, the 21-year-old black factory worker Chris, looking for a way to improve his lot in life, tells his foil and white friend Jason, during a scene in the bar where they hang out, that he is thinking of enrolling at Albright College, a small, private, nonprofit liberal arts institution in Reading, the small city in southeastern Pennsylvania where the play is set. This is, to put it mildly, a counterintuitive turn in the plot.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival commissioned Nottage, a recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant, to write one of her searing social dramas about America’s “de-industrial revolution.” She located Sweat in Reading (pronounced “redding”) because it was ranked as the country’s poorest city in 2012.

That distinction came as a shock to me. Having grown up 80 miles to the north near Wilkes-Barre, a town that since the late 1950s has seemed to define the term “depressed,” I always thought of Reading as a bit on the spiffy side. They made pretzels and steel there (a lot more exotic than Wilkes-Barre’s coal mines and shoe factories) and boasted one of the country's first outlet malls. The Cleveland Indians at one point actually moved a minor league baseball franchise from Wilkes-Barre to Reading, which seemed to be quite a statement. Besides, Reading was much closer to sophisticated Philadelphia, and its eponymous little railroad had a glamorous presence on the Monopoly board.

Indeed, as Nottage noted to me in a recent telephone conversation, there was a time, not so very long ago, when Reading and other old-line communities like it “had such an abundance of industrial jobs available that a person could practically stand on a street corner and get hired.”

In those days, she added, “a really good, solid factory job was a way to move up the ladder and get into the middle class. You could have a paid vacation every year, health insurance and a pension.” After 25 or 30 years, a worker in Reading could hope to earn $40,000 a year, support a family and have a good life.

But the evolution of the American economy has ravaged such places. New realities have wiped out old appearances and reputations. By the time Nottage, who is African-American, arrived in Reading to do research, she found severe economic deprivation and a host of social ills -- crime and violence, drugs, and a bitter racism that sets desperate people against each other and especially against immigrants.

Sweat takes place in 2000, when a plant in Reading begins to lay off its workers, presumably because the jobs are being moved to Mexico and elsewhere outside the U.S., and in 2008, by which time the dire consequences of economic decline can be more fully appreciated. The talk is tough, fear of the inevitable pathological and a secure future hard to imagine. Sweat is, in a sense, a morality play, in which an explanation lurks for the rise of both of this year’s most surprising political figures, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, each with his distinct appeal to the dispossessed.

The protagonists, who include two mother-son pairs, one black and one white, have clearly placed far too much faith and confidence in their paternalistic employer. When things begin to unravel, they have no good place to turn. The bartender, their psychological and social adviser, permanently crippled as he is from his own accident at the plant, where he, too, used to work, could have told them this was coming -- but no one was listening.

So how is it that one of the victims, even before everything begins to fall apart at the plant, looks to a liberal arts college for salvation?

Chris, says Nottage, his creator, “is a kid who was always aspirational. But it was drilled into his head as he was growing up that he could make much more money in the factory” than he ever would with a college degree. Clearly, when he got out of high school, “a skilled-labor person was in greater demand than someone with a B.A.”

What Chris has realized by the time he makes his seemingly random remark about going to study at Albright, Nottage says, is “how taxing, physically and emotionally, his factory job was. It took him a long time to come around to a new idea” -- that he could go to college after all and perhaps train to be a teacher -- “and he met great resistance in his peer group and his family.”

For his part, Lex O. McMillan III, now completing his 11th year as president of Albright College, finds this anomalous twist in the plot of Sweat totally logical. As he notes, Albright, once a more elite institution, has become a very diverse place. Today a majority of its students are members of minority groups, and about half of the student body is eligible for federal Pell Grants that go to the economically disadvantaged. Surprisingly enough, the average family income of students at Albright and other similarly situated private colleges in the region is lower than of those at Penn State, the flagship state institution in Pennsylvania and one of the largest public universities in the United States.

But as the action unfolds in Sweat, Chris never makes it to Albright. His job disappears before he can come up with a plan, and in a cruel twist, his own mother, cynically drawn from the factory floor into management with a mandate to help downsize the workforce, seems to be partially responsible.

Nottage defends her somewhat surprising choice of Albright, rather than the more predictable option of a community college, as the place her fictional hero thinks of attending. “In Chris’s community,” she says, “it would not necessarily be identified as a ‘liberal arts college,’ but it might be seen as a place where someone with his background and experience could aspire to succeed.” She was particularly drawn to Albright’s website, which, among other things, features a college-completion program geared for adults returning to school.

Then there is the fact that she herself is the product of a liberal arts curriculum at Brown University, “which allowed me to have as broad an education as I could imagine.” Originally pegged as a math and science scholar, Nottage entered Brown from New York as a pre-med student, but found that “no part of me had any interest in being a doctor” -- so she escaped to the humanities.

McMillan has not yet seen Sweat performed, but he and his colleagues have greatly enjoyed the unexpected attention it has focused on Albright.

Has the case been made widely and convincingly enough that a traditional college education has a role to play in solving America’s plight? “The B.A. is a path to economic advancement,” McMillan says, mounting his newly polished soapbox. “It is the most practical education you can get, and it will be useful all your life.”

Nottage agrees. “Some students,” she acknowledges, “cannot be served fully by a liberal arts institution.” But a liberal education, she believes, “makes a whole vocabulary available to another group of people.”

Sanford J. Ungar, president emeritus of Goucher College, is a Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Georgetown University and a Lumina Foundation Fellow. He teaches Free Speech at Harvard University and Georgetown.

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The troublesome shortage of instructional designers (essay)

Although instructional designers are, in many ways, the linchpin of higher education's digital transformation, they are hard to find, writes Paxton Riter.

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Bennington president examines sex, gender, power and policy in academe (essay)

Mariko Silver examines the intersection of sex, gender, power and policy in academe and the workplace.

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Universities need to communicate much more effectively about science (essay)

Many brilliant products of research end up feared and rejected by the mainstream society. Technologies such as vaccinations, genetics in agriculture or animal models in medicine can save lives, feed the world and preserve the planet but are distrusted by the majority of nonacademic Americans. How should science regain the trust of consumers? Probably not by doing more research. Instead, scientists are increasingly urged to come out from their academic ivory tower and become better communicators.

But is it fair to expect that scientists will do much of this communicating? Few hard-core researchers are gifted communicators. The minds that discover new drugs or new particles do so with an enormous amount of focus, and it may be counterproductive to demand from them additional, completely different types of creativity.

Instead, the academic leadership and administration of higher education institutions need to embrace science communication as a key pillar of their existence and enter the world of media. Most of society -- political candidates and parties, the corporate sector, nonprofits, even religions -- now engage in aggressive and technologically innovative campaigns in the struggle for influence. But not universities. Instead, scientific and educational institutions still appear reluctant to harness their accumulated intellectual, literary and technological capacity.

Yet there are enormous benefits to be reaped, financial as well as political, if higher education manages to enter mass media. For the national academy, communicating the importance of science is no longer a noble pursuit but a matter of survival. Here I offer for debate a few strategies for how science communication can be functionally institutionalized. Academic leadership should:

Measure and reward the impact of individual faculty members’ outreach. Not every scientist needs to know how to use Twitter. But for those who do choose to distribute their knowledge by means less obtuse than research articles, a system should be in place that objectively assesses their efforts and rewards demonstrable outcomes. Such rewards are commonplace for exceptional research, teaching or extension. That they do not exist for science communication is not by design, but out of inertia. Current tenure metrics still value a cryptic research publication that is never cited more than a blog post that influences thousands. Furthermore, measuring the impact of science communication would be easy and possibly more reliable than standard metrics of teaching, such as student evaluations, as usage analytic methods are readily available.

Revamp communications offices. At most American colleges and universities, offices in charge of science communication ether do not exist or are underfunded and resemble something between a sign shop and a branding police. In the world where what matters most is one’s prominence in the media and on the internet, this is an anachronism. Colleges and universities should take note of successful industries and invest heavily in high-quality science promotion teams. Such offices will always need to keep adapting to societal and technological change, and thus will only retain meaning if staffing is flexible -- and always open to new generations that are ahead of, not behind, new trends.

Some colleges and universities are moving forward and even establishing joint science news outlets (such as Futurity). That is a great start, but the vast majority of science news on the web is still by independent bloggers.

Get serious with local and national media for self-promotion. Many American colleges and universities, and most of the large land-grant institutions, reside in relatively small communities. Local radio stations and TV channels are a logical venue for promoting the importance of science to the community. Yet which research departments truly dedicate strategic effort to collaboration with local news media? In Gainesville, Fla., the crime scene dominates local news, with often little or no mention of the mega-funded and mega-productive research enterprise of the University of Florida that resides here. That is a wasted opportunity for developing a positive image of the institution in the lives and minds of the community, as well as for recruitment of supporters.

It is easy to blame the news media for not supporting science reporters any longer. But media-savvy institutions do not sit and wait to be noticed. They flood the market with interesting stuff, form long-term relationships with the news media and cultivate their audiences.

Reinvent extension. The three traditional pillars of all land-grant universities in America are research, teaching and extension. In a nutshell, extension is a network of university employees who mostly live among farmers and other industry folks and who can translate the fruits of recent research to their constituency. Over the last 100 years, this model helped propel America’s countryside into the most productive agriculture region in the world.

Now, in the 21st century, the vast majority of people live not on farms but in cities, and the extension empire is sometimes struggling to remain relevant. Land-grant universities would benefit themselves and the nation if they turned the extension model toward urban audiences. Those audiences are increasingly moving the American economy and are also more and more prone to be swayed by anti-science ideologies.

The main strength of extension has always lain in the army of motivated agents accustomed to working with lay populations. Thousands of agents are trained in core competencies such as electronic communication, program development and youth education. This organization is as close as it gets to being capable of carrying out the much-needed science communications revolution. All it needs is a new focus on plugged-in city dwellers. Some land grants are already exploring this path: check out the Western Center for Metropolitan Extension and Research.

Establish courses on activism and how to influence the media, combined with STEM course work. Whether academic circles approve of it or not, one sting video can thwart a thousand research papers. By producing alumni with practical skills in activism as well as empirical thinking, colleges and universities would secure their place in this increasingly vital aspect of contemporary history. Most important, by also requiring science-based courses, the educational system can exert a degree of control over the choice of worthy causes. Even a few instances of young people loudly demonstrating for better vaccinations would make a huge difference in the public perception of such matters.

Collectively demand that government agencies increase funding for science communication. Scientists are smart people and would invent amazing ways to communicate their results, but only if it becomes the currency of the trade. It is currently not. The National Science Foundation supports research participation for various student groups, but that is quite different from the need to break into online chat rooms where millions of adult Americans form their opinions. NSF also requires an explicit “broader impacts” statement with every grant application, but there is minimal enforcement and no monitoring of impact. This is not the robust incentive that is needed to communicate with masses.

Some of these suggestions may be uncomfortable for many in academe. Some raise ethical questions about the impartiality of education. That is the point. Anti-science groups and lobbying firms that already dominate the virtual marketplace of ideas are not going to wait for ethical guidance.

Jiri Hulcr is an associate professor in the School of Forest Resources and Conservation at the University of Florida.

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Creating the conditions on campuses that allow leaders to encourage change (essay)

To achieve positive change in higher education, we must create campus cultures that celebrate shared learning as we go, writes Judith S. White.

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Students value free expression but only if it's not derogatory or hurtful (essay)

The threat to free speech on college campuses -- where intellectual foundations rest on open debate -- has become a crisis, although not the one commonly posited in public debate. Despite some very public protests, students do overwhelmingly favor free political speech. However, ironically, undergraduates -- the major beneficiaries of social media -- are actually the primary enemies of other forms of expression, in part because of the way conversation occurs on the platforms that they live on.

How young people armed with smartphones became so skeptical of expression and what to do about it is a fundamental challenge for higher education. The answer will be to change the discourse from what to allow to what to listen to.

When observers talk about expression on campuses, they commonly focus on the highly publicized, mistaken actions of administrators who, among other things, fail to prevent disruption of lectures or disinvite controversial speakers. There have indeed been several high-profile flashpoints that many people have pointed to as emblematic of the free speech dilemma on campuses. For example, in early April, protesters at the University of Pennsylvania prevented CIA Director John Brennan from finishing speaking, yelling “Drones Kill Kids” and “Black Lives Matter.”  Journalists now have a routine graduation watch to see which speakers are disinvited due to concerns about student pressure. 

However, with about 4,000 colleges and universities in America, almost any story can be told from the examples of a few institutions. To better understand the actual state of free expression in higher education, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Newseum Institute commissioned the Gallup Organization to conduct what is undoubtedly one of the most comprehensive surveys of college student attitudes toward our foundational freedoms. A total of 3,072 students from 32 four-year colleges were interviewed, and 2,031 adults also were surveyed to provide comparative data.

In our just released report, we find some encouraging news. Most college students (73 percent in our survey) actually are confident about the security of free speech, and even more (81 percent) believe that the free press is secure. Seventy-eight percent of college students believe their campuses should strive to create an open environment where they are exposed to many different types of speech and views. Seventy-two percent say that colleges should not restrict political speech even if it upsets or offends certain groups. Students at public and private universities hold these views in equal proportions.

Administrators and trustees, especially in moments of campus crisis, should know that some very solid, albeit sometimes quiet, majorities oppose limits on political speech on campus. They should be confident that making sure controversial speakers are not disrupted and inviting a range of speakers is not only the right thing to do but also what most of their students actually want.  Mobilizing support for free political speech on college campuses may actually be easier than commonly assumed.

However, in this same survey, we found that today’s college students favor restrictions on free speech when it comes to slurs and language that is deliberately upsetting to some groups. Sixty-nine percent favor limitations on this kind of speech, while 63 percent support policies that restrict the wearing of costumes that stereotype particular groups. Notably, all student subgroups – including whites, men and Republicans -- support restrictions on slurs. 

Other evidence reinforces the observation that students are most concerned about what they say about each other. In April, we gathered 50 current college student leaders and journalists at the Newseum to talk about issues around free speech to add some texture to the survey findings. The discussion, driven by the students, focused mostly on how students could balance speech and concerns about inclusivity and diversity. The students didn’t even mention speakers or graduation controversies. The actions of administrators hardly figured. Rather, these students -- the first generation raised on social media -- were most concerned with how honest efforts to debate serious ideas too often were accompanied by frequently anonymous speech that felt directly threatening, derogatory and hurtful.

Unfortunately, students appear to want to realize their desire to have a civil, inclusive conversation by imposing restrictions on speech that contravene the First Amendment. For example, students are divided on whether reporters can be prevented from covering protests or public gatherings because the press will be unfair (49 percent say yes), the protesters have the right to be left alone (48 percent), or the protesters want to tell their own stories on the internet or social media (44 percent). And 54 percent agree that their campus climate is such that some people are prevented from saying things that might offend others. They appear to be comfortable with that level of self-censorship.

Much of the problem in how students talk to each other has to do with social media. Of course, current students understand the positive aspects of social media: 88 percent agree that social media helps people effectively express their views and be heard, and nearly the same number (86 percent) believe that social media allows people to have more control to tell their story. African-American students are slightly stronger believers in social media, with 93 percent stating that digital platforms allow people to effectively express their views and 95 percent concurring that the new technologies allow people greater control over their story.

However, the group dubbed “digital natives” is also very unhappy about aspects of social media. Only 41 percent believe that the discussion on social media is usually civil, and 74 percent say that it is too easy to say things anonymously. African-American students are even less likely to describe dialogue on social media as civil (36 percent), and even more likely to think that anonymous comments are too common (80 percent).

Thus, the real challenge to free speech on campuses is that students seem unable or unwilling in critical instances to talk to each other, especially on the digital platforms that are closely associated with their identities. That has led them down the dangerous path of being too willing to endorse and even demand restrictions on the very speech they are trying to exercise in the service of their own ideas and causes. It is this system of informal censorship that is the most significant challenge to the idea that campuses might still be marketplaces of ideas.

What we need is an earnest effort to create civility and inclusivity that respects those basic guarantees. We should start where the problem is most obvious:  anonymous social media. Of course, anonymous speech is protected speech and should not be censored. However, that does not mean that it has to be acknowledged. 

Our message should be incessantly to everyone, starting with young people, that the superior solution on a campus (and in society) is not to try to censor anonymous speech but rather to ignore it. Students should not pay attention unless the author is willing to put a name on it. Our society still has enough social capital that a great amount of obnoxious speech will probably disappear if the author has to be listed to have an audience.

Of course, anonymous violent threats have to be investigated, but the generation that has been raised on the Internet should be taught that credibility and audience can only be gained with a name. Eventually, we should equate anonymity with hardcore pornography: something that our laws permit but which our society is not particularly proud of and which is not socially acceptable in a great many circumstances. Some people may be willing to say obnoxious things with their name displayed, but that is their right. 

Over time, progress in fighting some forms of anonymity has been made. The comments section of many newspapers have gradually evolved to require names.  Twitter has begun to offer verified accounts. Margaret Sullivan, as public editor of The New York Times, waged an important campaign against anonymous sourcing that was sometimes little more than gossip in what was known as the paper of record.

In addition, we should constantly try to highlight positive examples of how people discuss controversial issues with each other. For instance, the Newseum, in conjunction with the Knight Foundation, is sponsoring a project on civil discourse on college campuses. We will be recruiting student teams from across the country to tell, via video (a preferred medium for young people), how their institution handled a controversial issue in a manner that did not impinge on free expression.

Since the advent of the smartphone and social media, too often the adults have given up trying to teach students about conversation because they feel themselves to be digital imposters. However, the ability to manipulate a device should not be confused with comfort with the conversation it enables. The students are saying loudly and clearly that they do not like the tone of much of social conversation. But the atmosphere of informal censorship that seems to pervade many campuses does not align well with the purposes of higher education. By emphasizing what should be listened to and stressing positive examples of difficult conversations that do not impinge on free speech, we can achieve the ambition of campuses to be exemplars of free speech for our society.


Jeffrey Herbst is president and CEO of the Newseum, in Washington.

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Chancellor's smartphone action during graduation sparks a conversation about higher education etiquette and netiquette

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Chancellor's smartphone action during recent graduation ceremony sparks conversation about academics' etiquette and netiquette (and lack thereof). 

UNC system president pledges not to enforce bathroom law

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Margaret Spellings, president of the University of North Carolina, pledges that campuses won't limit access for transgender students while lawsuits are pending.

1st Annual Global Symposium for Lean Higher Education

Thu, 11/16/2017 to Fri, 11/17/2017


Orlando , Florida
United States

Understanding the differences in what credentials are being stacked and why (essay)

Credential innovation is a hot topic in higher education, from microcredentials to digital badges, from competency-based and clickable transcripts to stackable credentials. Case in point: to facilitate dialogue, Lumina Foundation launched the Connecting Credentials initiative to help shape the vision and align the work of some 80 co-sponsoring education, labor and business organizations (including Parchment, where one of us serves as CEO).

While numerous articles have been written (by Kevin Carey, Ryan Craig and others) and conferences held on credential innovation, for many people in academe the concepts are new, with an emerging vocabulary that includes both familiar and unfamiliar terminology. Of those terms, “stackable credentials” is perhaps the most commonly and differently used. In our view, it is also the most important concept in the broader discussion. The term itself is clever, invoking the image of Lego blocks and the metaphor of assembly. But assembly of what? With what linkages?

The most common description of stackable credentials goes something like this: over a lifetime of learning, individuals can assemble, or stack, a series of traditional degree-based and/or nontraditional credentials -- certificates, certifications, licenses, badges, apprenticeships and more -- that recognize achievements and provide an accurate assessment of knowledge, skills and abilities. The more credentials learners accumulate and stack, the more they increase their currency in our knowledge economy, creating more direct pathways to better jobs and higher wages. While that narrative captures a number of key ideas, it glosses over important differences in what credentials are being stacked and why.

Stacking Credentials: Vertical, Horizontal and Value Added

Attainment of the four-year degree has increasingly become the primary focus of higher education, as evidenced by the shift of many two-year institutions toward transfer-friendly programs for learners whose final aspirations are a bachelor’s degree. At the same time, the longer history of community colleges, as well as many land-grant and technical four-year institutions, has been to provide educational programs and credentials tied to occupational fields at the certificate level, tied to a certification or, at the associate level, with a tight vocational focus. Those distinct types of educational programs and pathways have given rise to distinct forms of credential stacking.

In short, credentials can be stacked in many ways. We think the best framework is vertical, horizontal and value added, although we are not sure who actually coined these terms. (Will the master builder please step forward?) Most citations go back to Salt Lake City Community College.

Vertical Stacking. The original and more traditional version of credential stacking, vertical stacking, thinks about credentials in a hierarchy -- with one level building on another, enabling the learner to progress toward a higher degree. For example, a high school graduate earns an associate degree with a specialty, followed by a four-degree in a selected industry, like engineering, and finally an M.B.A. in preparation for a corporate upper-management position.

Vertical stacking is driven by the social forces at play in what Burning Glass Technologies calls the credentials gap: the difference between the education levels of currently employed workers and those employers are demanding for new hires. According to Burning Glass, an increasing number of jobs that nondegree holders historically filled now require degrees. For example, 65 percent of postings for executive secretaries and executive assistants now call for a bachelor’s degree, while only 19 percent of those currently employed in these roles have a B.A.

Horizontal Stacking. With horizontal stacking, the level of the credential is less important than the subject matter. Learners expand their subject matter expertise by earning credentials in related fields that, collectively, prepare each person for a specific type of job. Unlike vertical stacking, there is no explicit ordinal ranking or prerequisites, although some credentials may build on others.

For example, many highly skilled, highly sought after and highly compensated IT professionals don’t follow a traditional baccalaureate path, stacking degrees vertically. Instead, they build a series of nondegree certificates and certifications horizontally across an occupational field. A learner could earn a CompTIA certificate, Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert certificate and Cisco Certified Network Associate certificate with the goal of broadening his or her skills as a systems administrator or analyst.

Value-Added Stacking. Combining the concepts of vertical and horizontal credential stacking, value-added stacking is when a learner adds an area of expertise to an existing two- or four-year degree with shorter-term credentials to prepare for a specific type of job. In South Carolina, for instance, many of today’s health care professionals follow this path. A learner could add patient care technician and phlebotomy certificates to an associate degree or supplement a bachelor’s degree in health management with an information services certificate -- all leading to a position as a medical office administrator.

Why Stackable Credentials Are Worth Defining

Increasingly, Americans are earning many kinds of credentials to improve their position in the labor market. In 2012, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that 46.3 million adults (aged 18 and over) held a professional certification or license, and 19.1 million held an educational certificate. So while Burning Glass is right that a degree still matters, as research by the Georgetown Center for Workforce Development demonstrates, nondegree credentials can have a significant impact on earnings as well.

On average, says the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, high school graduates receive a 20 percent wage premium with a certificate. And certificate holders, especially those in high-earning fields of study, do better than many with an associate or bachelor’s degree. For example, in computer and information services, male certificate holders have higher earnings than 72 percent of men with an associate degree and 54 percent of those with a bachelor’s degree. Women certificate holders in the field earn more than 75 percent of women with associate degrees and 64 percent of those with bachelor’s degrees.

At the center of credential innovation and its related lexicon are the learners and the pathways they take. Increasingly, the best advice we can give students is not simply to get the highest degree possible. Instead, we need to think clearly about occupational goals and the different ways credentials can enable access to the fields they aspire to enter.

Most learners will never know the term stackable credentials or recognize that what they’re doing when they earn follow-on credentials is stacking. Instead, the responsibility falls on higher education institutions to have a clear conception of the term as we work to make our programs truly stackable and help our learners turn more credentials into more opportunities.

Jimmie Williamson is president of South Carolina Technical College System, and Matthew Pittinsky is an assistant research professor at Arizona State University and CEO of Parchment Inc.

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