In December, the Center for American Progress put out a report, A Path Forward: Game-Changing Reforms in Higher Education and the Implications for Business and Financing Models by David A. Bergeron. The report identifies the goal of recent reforms in higher education as improving quality by adding value, affordability, and a focus on student outcomes. The author argues that achieving this goal requires strengthening links between employers and postsecondary institutions in order to provide a more efficient and effective human capital system. Better aligning students’ preparation with workforce needs and helping employers better understand the knowledge, skills, and abilities of graduating students are both important.
The three reforms explored in the report are clear pathways to a certificate or degree, stackable credentials, and competency-based credentials.
Bergeron builds on Complete College America’s “Guided Pathways to Success” recommendation: place students into highly structured degree plans that map out each semester with the courses required to complete a program of study on time.
In stackable credentials, students’ progress in postsecondary education, marked by credentialed milestones that build on each other, works in tandem with a prescribed career trajectory. The nursing field is offered as an example.
Competency-based credentials provide employers with specific information about the knowledge, skills, and abilities that postsecondary graduates will bring to their employment. This knowledge will increase employers’ confidence, Bergeron argues, in an applicant’s fit for a particular position during hiring. While competency-based learning is not new, Bergeron explores the trend, just now emerging, of using the “direct assessment” approach to establish eligibility for federal financial aid in place of using credit hours. Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America—which received grant funding from NGLC—was the first institution in the nation to apply for and be approved for using direct assessment in this way.
I discovered a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article on CUNY’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs, an initiative that also advances these reforms. The ASAP program involves small classes, full-time enrollment, targeted counseling, structured pathways, and financial support for low-income students who enroll in CUNY community colleges needing one or two remedial courses. A report from MDRC found that ASAP students were more likely to stay enrolled each semester, earned more credits, and were more likely to complete a degree than a control group of similar students who did not participate in ASAP. And the program lowers costs, according to a different Columbia University study.
In addition to College for America, here are examples from the NGLC portfolio that dovetail with the reforms noted in A Path Forward:
- The University System of Georgia’s breakthrough degree program offers stacked credentials with a certificate within the first year of study, an associate’s degree by the end of year two, and the bachelor’s degree upon completion.
- Direct2Degree from the Kentucky Community and Technical College System offers a clear, structured pathway to a degree by enrolling full-time students in one course at a time; students master the material within each module of a course before moving on to the next one. The modules are self-paced and sequential and students advance to the next course without traditional breaks between terms.
- The Texas Affordable Baccalaureate of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board offers a competency-based curriculum in which full-time faculty and industry experts worked together to develop course competencies as well as assessments and curriculum materials.
The academic reforms of the NGLC breakthrough models are paired with innovative business models and alternatives to tuition and fees. Read their profiles to learn more.