College leaders adeptly balance the competing needs of their institution. For years, colleges have held a dual mission: Prep workers for employers and equip students to transfer to four-year institutions for degree obtainment. Nevertheless, these dual missions split into two distinct tracks creating bureaucratic barriers. These walls make moving between obtaining a career-centric certification and a traditional degree difficult for students. Sadly, students of color and at-risk have the most to lose. Still, higher-ed leaders can take steps to bridge the gap between non-credential and credit courses to improve credentialing.
The Strategic Steps for Credentialing
Step 1: Understand Available Funding
First, a leader must know the available funding for streamlining credit and non-credit programs. Leaders can use post-pandemic monies to build new programs and remodel existing ones. Still, leaders facilitate course development with the intent to bridge the gaps. Besides that, leaders invest in educating faculty on proven strategies. Also, leaders solicit faculty, staff, and community buy-in on why their institution benefits from bridging the programs.
Step 2: Solicit Buy-In
Still, certifications and industry-specific job training programs have a stigma. Sadly, these programs carry less social value than a traditional four-year degree. Students face limited labor market value. Their skills risk being outdated quickly or expiring. Leaders invest in teaching staff to create high-quality courses whether they are part or not of the for-credit program. Why? Non-traditional students of color are more likely to enroll in job training programs than traditional students in degree programs. Therefore, faculty must get the urgency to align non-credential pathways to for-credit programs. The result benefits all stakeholders. Students do not waste time or money retaking a non-credit course for credit. Besides that, students get sustainable careers, higher-earning jobs, and access to graduate-level degrees. Employers get workers with skills that are growing with their industry. Schools keep degree-seeking students in their pipeline.
Step 3: Scale Programs
Still, schools realize these benefits when faculty is onboard. Also, the curriculum must be scalable in programs where well-paying jobs are growing. So, leaders identify these areas and then break down barriers for students. Deans face policy, process, and institutional challenges. Additionally, they face displaced workers, economic upheavals, and a vulnerable student population needing a quick move out of poverty. Still, employers need workers. Job training programs excel at upskilling workers. However, the demand for short skill-based certification programs unintentionally worsens the DEI. Unless schools ensure that upskill programs work in concert with degree obtainment. So, train industry-focused faculty to design for-credit courses. They can do it or even work with a third-party vendor. Then, align classes in the current catalog. Schools can award credit for learning as students move between programs using the following bridge tools.
Bridging Tools for Credential and Non-Credential Courses for Credentialing
Bridge Tool 1: Create Stackable Credentials
First, bridge tools include credit matrices, equivalency, and competency-based models. Still, the solution is not as easy as redoing how the non-credit and certificates stack within a degree program. A redo is needed across degree and certificate programs that better mesh the two without unconscious bias towards degree programs. However, the wide variety of non-credential certificate programs makes assigning one-to-one credit difficult. Non-credit to credit transfer evaluation policies are complex, and it is a big task for already overworked faculty and staff. The National Center for Educational Statistics reports that over one-quarter of U.S. adults have some non-credential credential. Certificates, micro-credentials, occupational licensure, apprenticeships, and continuing education units (CEUs) crowd the market. Leaders must ask if offering for-credit options in these programs align with their school’s mission, which improves credentialing.
Bridge Tool 2: Align Governance, Departments, and Resources
Secondly, leaders crystalize their institution’s mission and then put all they have behind the products the school offers the community. This way, job market integration happens across the curriculum. Still, leaders take down walls by using a simple strategy – reduce redundancy. Schools that separate associate degree and technical training programs have duplicity. So, leaders urge faculty to identify duplication in course objectives, learning outcomes, and processes. So, put relevant non-credit and credit departments together under joint leadership. Also, leaders improve coordination across departments to focus on employer needs, product offerings, and student lifestyles.
Bridge Tool 3: Serve Students Equally
Thirdly, degree-seeking students have advantages non-credit cert students do not. Deans must address structural inequities such as lack of student services and access to resources and supports, such as computer lab, counseling services, and transportation. Leaders champion initiatives that build up these supports. Then, invest in staff and accessibility. Advising and counseling for students transitioning to a degree-seeking track must be easy to find and available on day one. Likewise, policies and program requirements must be clear and easy to follow.
Bridge Tool 4: Make it Easy to Move Between Tracks for redentialing
Lastly, many students might desire to transfer to a degree course of study when they begin a non-credit program. However, the percentage of students who do so is low. Besides that, clear, easy-to-follow policies must be in place that let students move between pathways. Also, students need the flexibility to pause their learning journey. Then, students need to be able to restart where they left off. Still, the structural divide negatively impacts more students than benefits – especially students the programs intended to help. Nevertheless, leaders must continue pushing for reform, reducing bureaucracy, and providing equitable support services.
In sum, leaders drive efforts to bridge the divide between credit and non-credit programs. Community colleges must prioritize dismantling the red tape that hinders students from getting their degrees. Schools must reform the process and make it easy for students to move from a non-credit program into a credit one. Likewise, leaders must solicit faculty buy-in while identifying and allocating resources to drive change and support students. Still, a four-year college degree is a gateway to economic and social progress. Besides that, the four-year degree gives access to a graduate-level degree. Higher-ed remains a gateway to society-changing roles in the C-suite. Leaders can champion policies that reform their institutions to improve equity for every student. Schools give opportunities that build student relationships throughout their career.