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Reimagining the Educational Path to the Workforce

December 17, 2014 12:00 PM

One of the most longstanding problems that plagues the American postsecondary education system is the lack of a clear pathway for students to follow from the start of their education to their career. Complete College America, a national nonprofit that is dedicated to expanding the pool of American college graduates, tackles this problem as one of its five “game-changer” strategies, the Guided Pathways to Success (GPS). Under the GPS model, students would work from a limited number of meta-majors, which would meet core academic requirements, and move into a specific major through a highly structured degree program. After reviewing CCA’s strategy, a key question is left unanswered: would the degree attained at the end of the GPS process still meet the workforce needs of employers?

In order to ensure that today’s workforce has flexible pathways to employment, the types of credentials earned by students and others need to be reimagined. At a recent forum hosted by the Center for American Progress (CAP), Reimagining the Path to the Workforce: Nanodegrees and Other Flexible Workplace Credentials, panelists Eugene Giovannini, President of the Maricopa Corporate College, Clarissa Shen, Vice President of Business Development at Udacity, and Anne Wintroub, Director of Social Innovation at AT&T, discussed a new innovative program for earning postsecondary credentials with moderator David Bergeron, Vice President for Postsecondary Education at CAP. Aneesh Chopra, Senior Fellow at CAP, opened the discussion.

The idea of stackable credentials—a sequence of credentials that accumulate over time to build up an individual’s qualifications and move individuals along a career pathway or up a career ladder to different jobs—was explored at length. “Incoming students don’t know what path they’re going to follow from the time they enter postsecondary education to the specified job they acquire,” said Shen. “At Udacity, it’s a six- to nine-month completion, if they’re working full-time, and the end result is a credential that’s recognized in the industry they go into.”

Giovannini described Maricopa’s nanodegrees more as “skill-based digital badges, which are portable and transferable, and help leverage an employee’s credentials as they stack upwards, showing a recognizable skillset.” Part of Maricopa’s process involves an assessment of the employer’s positions and skill ‘gaps’ to better target education opportunities for their employees.

Wintroub emphasized the importance of partnerships between employers and postsecondary educators, which are more often community colleges. “These partnerships create an ecosystem so that students can find successes on a larger scale in the job market,” she said. A strong system of accreditation needs further development as well.

“The focus has to be on the student first,” said Shen. “Online classes that are ‘living’—using datapoints to target fixes and target learning—helps keeps the cost relative to the experience. The communities developed between students, the educator, and the employers also help with the transitioning into more targeted jobs.”

Current technological and human systems in place at more traditional centers of learning, along with business and financing models, can impede the development of needed reform. “Adoption of the most promising reforms could significantly increase the productivity of the nation’s postsecondary education system,” said Bergeron. “Far too few students today are able to complete certificates and degrees, due to taking on too much debt. And if/when a student does complete a certificate or degree program, they often hear employers tell them they do not have the right skills for the available positions.”

Employers play an important role in defining educational program results. Workforce stakeholders must be enlisted to define what success looks like, including what competencies are valued. “This is to ensure greater alignment between postsecondary education and the workplace, and business and industry stakeholders,” said Bergeron. Adding employers, labor unions, and professional associations to the decision-making process of accrediting agencies gives a more formal and significant role in determining what quality looks like.

“Traditional education does provide a rounded learning experience,” said Shen. “But the nanodegree model, especially in the tech fields, brings needed, targeted skills back to the forefront. Tech skills especially should not be seen as a stepchild in traditional education.”

 

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