Continuing education has often been relegated to second-tier--but integrating credit and non-credit programs could expand access to students.

5 strategies to serve more learners through credit and non-credit programs

Higher ed should move from serving only some populations to enabling every learner to gain access to knowledge—in whatever manner suits them

Key points:

Since the establishment of Departments of Continuing Education at Oxford and Cambridge Universities in the 1870’s, the free dissemination of select courses by the Lowell Institute through Harvard in the 1910’s, and the establishment of extension centers through the 1914 Smith-Lever Act, units named continuing education, professional education, and extension, have served the perceived “non-traditional” demographic, often enabling transfer of knowledge to a larger population than served through the academic core of degree based units of the same institutions.

Some of these offerings are not academic in nature, representing enrichment programs for the community, lecture events to highlight academic “stars,” and test preparation for licensure and certification. A considerable number of offerings, however, are designed to provide advanced knowledge to working professionals, and enable rapid response to workforce needs in areas of advanced technology and skill sets critically needed in the workforce, including for reskilling and upskilling. Many are offered in conjunction with faculty from degree-granting academic units and/or with leading experts in the field and enable upward mobility for learners, contributing to the economic development of the region while increasing its technological and intellectual skill base.

Despite their effectiveness with levels of rigor and excellence that meet high standards required for licensure, as well as the use of highly-trained and skilled professionals who extend university-based and applied knowledge and clearly demonstrate value through the upward progression of learners in the workforce, these units have heretofore been largely relegated to a secondary status, set up as auxiliaries, established as self-supporting units (which often generate significant sources of revenue that are then used to support the academic core), positioned on a corner of campus, and most often isolated from the academic core being considered as lower in quality and lacking rigor primarily because of their non degree status.

This creates a distinct gap between these units and their more traditional degree-granting counterparts in academic affairs, despite the significant overlap of material and, at times, even students and faculty.

Yet, today, in a world driven by the accelerating convergence of technology and information–one in which there is a perplexing paradox of people with degrees unqualified for an increasing number of jobs that are vacant–and the critical need for learners to have access to knowledge in forms that enable a step progression on the ladder of socio-economic mobility (rather than having to wait for the completion of a degree, which in itself may not be possible due to competing responsibilities, and in any event may not be adequately prepare the learner for success in the workforce), there is a growing need for greater flexibility in obtaining knowledge, whether it be in the form of degrees, credentials, certifications, or even “just-in-time” knowledge in modules.

This suggests that rather than keeping the two distinct and isolated, there is a need for enhancing synergy, and perhaps even integration, allowing the learner the flexibility of choice–a full-fledged degree, applied certification, modular access to knowledge, or a combination thereof based on the immediate needs of the learner with the option of converting non-credit attainment to units that count towards a degree/credential, if desired at a later date, through appropriate processes. Our current structures, however, make this difficult, if not impossible, for reasons ranging from philosophical, to those of accreditation, and perceptions of rigor, or lack thereof. Nonetheless, it is imperative from the perspectives of both learner and employer that the two be merged in some way, ensuring that knowledge can be disaggregated, unbundled, packaged by module, re-aggregated, re-bundled, stacked, and stapled for the benefit of the learner, employer, and the community rather than just based on historical precedent or ease of operation of the institution.

While current entrenched barriers (philosophical and logistical) may keep the credit and non-credit units apart, there are a few critical aspects through which they could be brought closer, ultimately integrating the mechanisms by which they might better serve a greater number of learners in attainment of relevant credentials and in ensuring career progression and socio-economic mobility.

  • Using a learner-focused lens: Emphasizing a focus on the fundamental mission of enabling every learner to access and benefit from the opportunity and promise of higher ed rather than a singular focus on gaining a degree irrespective of value necessitates a focus on both the needs of the learner and the range of offerings and modalities of engagement through which these are met. It is critical that we recognize that the traditional student model, built around the 18- to 24-year-old who continues at a college/university directly from high school, no longer serves a growing percentage of learners who today increasingly have to balance responsibilities of family and career with their academic pursuits, with the pursuit of knowledge being increasingly directly linked to progression in careers and increased earnings potential. Addressing these growing needs and learner demographics necessitates greater choice in modalities (face-to-face, online, and hybrid), flexibility in timings and offerings with greater focus on modularity, and associated mechanisms of stacking and stapling, enabling knowledge to be gained as, when, and where needed by the learner. Enabling a focus on acquisition of relevant knowledge by the widest set of populations irrespective of whether the offering led to a credential, degree, or just “knowledge-in-a-package,” which could be augmented in the future towards a credential, would go a long way in removing the stigma related to non-degree-seeking students that currently persists even if the course material and instructor are the same. While not immediately requiring a change in the details of public funding of higher ed, this change in focus would not only require a philosophical and fundamental shift at the institutional level but also at the level of boards, university system leadership, and accreditation agencies, which often overemphasize a focus on only degree seeking students at the cost of all others because of perceptions related to ranking, prestige, and historical precedent, rather than on the value to the learner and in the workforce.
  • Enabling cross-functionality between the units: It is important that there be a true philosophical and functional understanding of the overlap and need for synergy between both units so that the bounds of governance are invisible to the learner and do not serve as a barrier (perceived or otherwise). While some structures, such as linked to financial aid and plans for degrees and study, can differ, the key is the development of policies that not only allow for differences in motivation on the part of the learner as related to gaining a degree, credential, or just the required knowledge in a specific module, but also policies that recognize the importance of assessing competency, and awarding credit for its demonstration rather than based on time in seat, modality of learning, or whether the learner was pursuing a degree or just a credential (which could later be transferred towards a degree), or ensuring that they had the knowledge base and skill-sets needed to continuously match rapid changes in the workplace. This should also extend to greater access for learners to advanced courses with appropriate prior work experience serving as a substitute for pre-requisites that traditionally have often precluded adult returning learners from pursuing advanced knowledge. In addition, there is a need to purposefully focus coordination between the two units to ensure effective alignment especially as related to modular curriculum development and design with a view of enabling the same material to serve as the core for both credit and non-credit pursuits with the ability of future transferability.
  • Developing and implementing common learner facing systems: The use of common, and appropriately designed, systems such as the LMS and SIS would enable greater consistency and ease of access, better efficiency in records, handoff, and transferability, assuring a focus on the student/learner experience. All too often the differences in these platforms and systems not only frustrates learners, but also results in them being sent from “pillar-to-post” and being delayed in their progress, or in demonstration of attainment, even in cases with administrative approval at all pertinent levels. Further, just as with the issue of transferability of credit on the degree side, the lack of integration of systems related to data records and articulation can result in learners having to repeat modules just to move from a non-credit to credit bearing modality. The use of a common comprehensive learner record could go a long way in enabling greater effectiveness and efficiency over extended periods of time and engagement. This is critical if institutions are to develop better mechanisms of engagement with learners over their careers/lives, recognizing attainment and mastery of knowledge and skills, ensuring that learners have agency over their credentials and can better personalize their knowledge/skill sets based on opportunities being pursued. This also enhances the ability of making all learning count, rather than it being narrowly restricted by traditional structures that may already be obsolete in value in a fast-changing workplace.
  • Removing barriers to transition: All too often, returning adult learners, including those with significant non-credit course completions and/or work experience that substantially overlaps with material covered in credit-bearing courses, are required to duplicate learning already achieved to gain credit towards a degree. It is essential that higher ed develop policies and practices that recognize prior learning and provides tools that enable and even accelerate transition. The incorporation of bridge tools such as online modules to fill small gaps in knowledge, equivalency matrices, articulation agreements, prior learning assessment, credit by exam, and other competency demonstration tools are critical. In addition, the appropriate design of curricula that is modular in nature–with modules being self-standing and stackable such that almost everything available on the for-credit side could be offered with appropriate packaging on the non-credit side but with well-defined pathways for awarding of credit at a later date–is essential. The recognition that high-quality, rigorous learning does occur in non-credit courses is a crucial factor in this. Further, the reduction of forms and time spent waiting for decisions would go a long way towards easing transition. It should be noted that many of the barriers currently faced by transfer students are amplified here, including archaic regulations related to the necessity of completing courses that are unaligned with the final goal and even the purpose of the degree. The integration of offices and functions, as well as the commonality of systems used, as mentioned earlier, would assist in this especially in the removal of artificial barriers.
  • Developing appropriate funding models: Acknowledging that the goal for an increasing number of learners is not a degree per se, but knowledge and skill sets that assure more than a living wage and upward socio-economic mobility, and that there is a growing need for programs that focus on discrete sets of advanced knowledge/skills rather than degrees, means it is critical that we develop appropriate mechanisms for funding of learners both at the level of non-credit courses that lead to upward mobility and as they transition to degrees. Changes in existing policies, and development of new ones that focus on enabling attainment of advanced knowledge in non-degree modalities and for transition between non-degree and degree status, will be essential. These include, for example, changes to eligibility for Pell grants at the federal level, development of new policies in state-funded programs to support learners in high-demand, high-quality, non-degree programs in areas of advanced knowledge/skills (often needed for upskilling), and even changes in institutional policies for the inclusion of returning adult learners transitioning from non-degree to degree status in the award of institutional scholarships and aid. There is a misperception that returning adults and those transitioning do not need support. The reality is that their needs for financial, and other wrap-around support, while different, are at times even more critical than those of traditional students.

If education is truly to remain relevant in the 21st century, higher ed must recognize that while a degree still has cachet, an increasing number of learners do not have the luxury of pursuing knowledge for its own sake. In addition, the growing convergence of technology and information, coupled with rapid changes in technology and increasing use of automation and AI, are changing the types of competencies required in the workforce. These two aspects are driving a system that increasingly values competency rather than just degrees, skill sets, and advanced knowledge gained, and implemented, over short periods of time rather than waiting for longer periods to complete full degrees. This demands a shift in culture, from one that clearly differentiated between degree-based academic pursuits and continuing/professional education to one that combines the two, ensuring that the focus is on competencies and credentials that advance economic opportunity and socio-economic mobility while meeting rapidly-changing workforce needs and providing a path for longer-term degree attainment.

The question should not be one of competition vs. convergence, applied vs. academic, isolated vs. integrated–rather, it should be on moving from serving only some populations in silos to enabling every learner to access and gain from knowledge, wherever, whenever, and in whatever form, needed.

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