New Mexico’s Grow Your Own Teachers program offers scholarships and a pathway for educational assistants to become fully licensed classroom teachers. With an alarming and growing shortage of classroom teachers, innovative pathways are essential to filling the gaps and meeting the needs of today’s students across the educational continuum. With these types of upskilling and reskilling programs, students are able earn higher-level credentials and better pay while meeting critical workforce needs.
These challenges predated COVID-19, and unfortunately, without significant action they seem likely to exacerbate the hurdles students must overcome. A May 2020 survey from Strada Education Network found that one out of three Americans between the ages of 18 to 64 have modified or canceled their education plans. This significant disruption likely will lead to many transfers and “stop outs,” which will have an enormous impact on these students’ future education or career plans. Students deserve a system that embraces the fact that learning happens in many ways, at many places, and that recognizes the skills students acquire throughout their lives and formal education.
Continued state efforts are necessary to stem the arbitrary loss of previously earned, credited learning between institutions when students transfer. Many students do not finish a degree where they started. For example, over one-third of students who started college in 2011 transferred to a different institution over the next six years. Increased credit articulation agreements and other public-policy levers that extend digitally across state lines can help ensure that students gain and retain relevant credit for their time, effort, and cost. Many states have adopted laws and policies that require statewide transferability of lower-division courses and guaranteed transfer of associate’s degrees among public institutions within the state.
Beyond guarantees among in-state public colleges, however, this type of guaranteed credit transfer is needed among more institutions, within states and across state lines. Multistate educational collaboratives could be utilized to achieve interstate transferability, building upon models such as NC-SARA (National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements) and the work the Midwest Higher Education Compact (MHEC) has undertaken to achieve credit transferability of military service credit across a 13-state region.
States can provide a framework for capturing employer workforce training and the precious resources employers spend to upskill and reskill their employees. We are entering a new generation of opportunities, hastened by rapidly changing technology and a global pandemic, that must include short-term, competency based, workplace-based training and programs. While students and workers are earning new skills, they must be able to apply and stack demonstrated skills toward a degree or credential. A seamless integration of employer training into credit-bearing credentials would ensure dollars spent on workforce training have an unmistakable benefit for students, making it more affordable for them to gain the relevant skills employers demand.
Learning occurs in many places outside the traditional classroom and through many nontraditional sources: Many gain skills in the workplace, in formal and informal apprenticeships, and through military training. These learning opportunities can lead to high-quality outcomes and are often workforce relevant but too often go unrecognized. The result is that skilled individuals often have to undertake coursework that duplicates what they have already learned in a more real-world setting, causing unnecessary delay and inflating the cost of education.
Through WGU’s competency-based education, students who come to WGU with some college or life experience can more quickly demonstrate the education, knowledge, and skills they have achieved in either a formal or informal educational setting. This allows them to move through education more quickly and more affordably. State and local policymakers could better serve students by ensuring credit for prior learning at state institutions.
The skills-based economy calls for a more comprehensive way for students to exhibit the skills they have mastered than traditional academic transcripts and résumés. Learning and Employment Records (LER) or skills-based transcripts must be developed and adopted as the new currency in the skills-based economy. A student-owned, skills-based transcript takes the traditional academic transcript to an important new level—one that includes academic records, certifications, work accomplishments, and descriptions of accumulated skills. As employers are increasingly skeptical of the value of a degree alone, a skills-based transcript documents what a student can do, along with the credentials completed, to give employers a more complete picture of what an individual has to offer. States can partner with efforts already under way with the American Workforce Policy Advisory Board to pilot and adopt the use of the skills-based transcript.
Leaving school with debt and no credential is a potentially crippling financial event, and it happens to far too many students. Time, money, and effort are expended gaining college credits, but students are left with nothing to show for it if they stop before they complete a full degree. This is yet another reason to scaffold learning opportunities as a sequence of microcredentials. Even if students stop short of a degree, there should be a way to demonstrate the marketable skills they have obtained during their study.
One “reverse transfer” initiative, the Lumina Foundation’s Degrees When Due, encourages states and institutions to review student transcripts in order to provide an associate’s degree, whenever possible, to students who have transferred from a community college to a four-year institution without completing a bachelor’s degree. By receiving degrees when enough credits are completed, students have a meaningful record of educational achievement to show to employers. This reverse transfer process could be taken a step farther, to award not only associate’s degrees but other types of credentials and certificates as milestones in a student’s educational journey. These options can signal to employers relevant skills and knowledge for employability in meaningful and financially stable careers.
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As a first lieutenant in the United States Army, Nathan earned his master’s degree in Management and Leadership in just six months while deployed in Kuwait. In his 2018 commencement speech, Nathan credited his WGU program mentor, Jelda, for keeping him accountable and following through with his weekly program goals. Armed with a new master’s degree, Nathan recently launched a nonprofit organization, Everyday Heroes, to benefit children suffering from long-term and terminal illnesses.