Stackable degrees could be the future of higher education, experts say
- The alternative credential market is growing and the pace will not slow down, higher education experts said during a Committee for Economic Development of The Conference Board briefing last week about the Higher Education Act. One of the panelists, Scott Pulsipher, president of Western Governors University, said that around “two-thirds of jobs are going to require some postsecondary credential, while only about 42% of adults currently have any postsecondary credential of any sort.”
- However, everyone doesn’t need a bachelor’s degree, which is raising demand for the sub-degree market, said Pulsipher, adding that the traditional higher education model is going to have to change. “The whole notion of the stackable credential is going to become real,” he said, “and we’ll no longer talk about a four-year grad rate, because if I just scaffold my credentials, that may take 20 years.”
- Van Ton-Quinlivan, vice chancellor of the California Community Colleges, added to these sentiments during the briefing, noting that she has seen the demand for “booster shot” credentials in the workplace especially as new technologies continue to be introduce. “As we begin to see the economy shift in that direction,’ she said, “people will be building up portfolios and reputations that are beyond how we treat credentials in the current day.”
The whole of higher education is undergoing a mindset shift, with leaders in the sector recognizing the needs of the workforce are no longer what they were in the past. With the current pool of students also becoming rapidly more diverse and filling up with what many call nontraditional students seeking more flexible hybrid-degree options, as well as more inclusive learning environments, executives are having to re-imagine what the education business model is.
As Gordon Gee, president of West Virginia University and long-time industry participant noted during the panel discussion, he’s seen this transition happen over his lifetime and knows other leaders are trying to figure out how to adapt:
“Put yourself in the shoes of an older president hearing that jobs you’ve always trained people for may no longer exist,” said Gee. “I like the notion of a booster shot, I think if we consider about predictions it really does require universities to rethink the whole way that they put together the curriculum and the way they itemize peoples’ thinking about where they will be at any given time in their lives.”
This means the model of higher education and university design is also going to be vastly different in the near future, said Pulsipher, noting that even the idea of a fall or spring term is not applicable to a student with a full-time job. It’s a reality that means “both universities and nontraditional providers are going to have to figure out how to deliver this kind of education that adults are pursuing,” and that might mean buying into the idea of a “stackable degree.”
From the workforce perspective, Ton-Quinlivan said graduates are no longer being assessed as employable based on a two or four-year degree. In the world of the gig economy, she said, the currency has gone from just the paper degree to really the competency based credentials which can exist in many forms.
“In the world of the gig economy where people are operating as more self-employed or like a freelancer, the currency … is based on your portfolio of competency based credentials, which can include some of these badges as well as your online reputation,” she said.