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Academic Accountability: Transitioning from Certifications of Completion to Certificates of Competen

If a bakery’s cakes don’t taste good, it will close. If an investment firm doesn’t offer sufficient returns, its clients will take their money elsewhere and it will be considered a failure. If a movie studio’s films don’t draw audiences to the theater, it will have to change its approach to cinema. These three disparate examples demonstrate that, across different industries and fields, we hold businesses accountable for the outcomes of their work. Performance without results is meaningless in the private sector. It doesn’t matter how hard employees have worked on a given good or service; customers won’t continue paying if a business doesn’t deliver the value it’s promised.

Unfortunately, the same isn’t true when it comes to higher education. Commercial contexts prioritize accountability for outcomes; educational organizations typically do not. We focus on educators’ efforts and how they perform their jobs rather than what students are actually getting from their institution's endeavors. Especially when compared to commercial organizations, however, this is clearly illogical. Just because a class occurred or a professor spent a long time preparing for it doesn’t mean it was ipso facto valuable.

Of course, most professors went into teaching because they wanted their students to experience true results from their instruction. We undoubtedly want our pupils to find viable work, lead fulfilled lives, build critical thinking skills, and more. These are our true products, and we do work to provide them. However, if our institutions don’t measure these outcomes or hold themselves accountable for offering their students true value, it’s difficult to tell how well we’re doing, or what we may need to change about our approach.

Fortunately, the tides are beginning to turn on academic accountability. Higher educational institutions (and their funders) are beginning to define and pay attention to what our products as organizations truly are. Below, I discuss various approaches to academic accountability and propose several strategies for making education worthwhile to learners.

The Era of Accountability for California Community Colleges

As the Vice President for Strategic Development at Norco College, I am proud to say that the California Community Colleges (CCC) are leading the charge for academic accountability and can serve as an exemplar of this type of responsibility for student outcomes. The CCC’s funding formula includes “a base allocation, which largely reflects enrollment,” “a supplemental allocation” based on grant statistics, and, most importantly, “a student success allocation based on outcomes,” which vary from degree completion numbers, to academic accomplishments (“transfer-level math and English”), to “the number of students who have attained the regional living wage.” This formula helps ensure that we provide the tangible, measurable educational value our students deserve.

Furthermore, the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges has had a formal “focus on student learning outcomes (SLOs)” since 2002. Our accreditors have consistently demonstrated their commitment to SLOs by refining their standards for these results, holding events, and, in 2017, “forming a task force” dedicated to improving SLOs.

Of course, these are fantastic steps toward academic accountability, and examples other higher educational institutions should model, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do more. That’s why I’ve devised several strategies to further emphasize and achieve valuable student outcomes.

Credentials as Currency

We might not always think of them this way, but essentially, credentials are a mode of currency. The businesses and organizations that hire credentialed graduates are the consumers of this currency, which has monetary value because it communicates a worker’s skills and potential contributions. When someone goes to trade time for money, they may consider a credentialed person’s time more valuable because they believe he or she will get more done in less time or be able to complete tasks someone else could not.

Praxis puts it best: “A college degree is a signal…It conveys information about [a graduate’s] ability, skill, and intelligence.” What we have to face in the 21st century of higher education, however, is that “this signal is not as valuable as [we] think…Not long ago a degree may have been the best signal most people could get, [but]…things have changed dramatically.” A bachelor’s degree has become an imperfect filter for competence. Nowadays, we all know that some people with highly valuable skills don’t have a degree, and some people with relatively little to contribute do.

In fact, a recent Strada-Gallup Education Consumer Survey asked more than 340,000 individuals to rate the value of their education pathways. Education consumers are clear that more than earnings and wages, the value of their education is tied to its relevance in their work and lives. Relevant courses, not wages, have the strongest link to how consumers assess the value of their education experience. When education consumers believe they are provided high-quality, applied learning experiences and excellent career and academic advising, their assessment of value increases regardless of their program of study.

The good news is that we can better align educational attainment and real value with an appropriate accrediting system. After all, the job of an accreditor could be described to validate that those who hold a credential actually provide the value associated with it. In order to ensure students get real results, we must move from accreditation based on inputs­–if students persist through and complete X number of courses, they automatically get the degree–to one focused on outcomes­–students earn their degrees by demonstrating they have the skills needed for actual income gains and social mobility. To put it concisely, we need to transition from certifications of completion to certificates of competence. Our degrees should assess and confirm that graduates are truly ready to hold their own in the working world.

We can do this by embedding competence-based credentials into existing courses and programs. I call this philosophy a skills-based approach to student success. In order to further integrate intellectual and preprofessional education, our institutions can also encourage students to earn third-party credentials or micro-credentials. These are certificates of competence in narrower niches, such as cybersecurity, Adobe programs, HTML, and other areas. Colleges should be taking advantage of every possible avenue to help students enter the workforce fully equipped to succeed.

From Rankings to ROI

As I mentioned above, the statistics we use to measure an enterprise’s success matter, and traditionally, the commercial sector has done a better job measuring actual outcomes than academia has. To this end, performance and accountability metrics need to evolve past antiquated measures historically rooted in national rankings. The reasoning for these rankings is often more rooted in prestige than practicality.

Higher education should continue to be focused on both advancing knowledge (through professors’ intellectual investigations) and transferring this knowledge to students (through instruction). However, we should also be measuring and giving institutions “credit” for moving learners from the bottom quartile to the top quartile in terms of socio-economic status. A college education should generally improve a graduate’s career opportunities, quality of life, and income.

To this end, we need to calculate and improve the ROI (return on investment) of the learner’s experience. Achieving this goal will require a broader shift in perspective and more comprehensive programs, but there are smaller steps we can take to immediately improve students’ educational ROI. For example, we need to make credentials and certificates stackable to additional degrees and further educational pathways. Students should not be hitting up against “opportunity cul de sacs,” where they’d have to start a whole new degree to earn add an additional competency.

At the community college level, especially, we also need to make credentials more transferable to other two- and four-year institutions. The average learner loses 43% of their credits when transferring to another institution, according to a report by National Student Clearinghouse. This dynamic makes nearly half of transfer students’ previous credentials meaningless, punishing them for pursuing more optimal educational opportunities or simply moving. While it wouldn’t solve every educational ROI issue our students face, streamlining the transfer process overall (as the CCC system has done with the adoption of Associate Degrees for Transfer) and making it more transparent would certainly help them get more for what they spend on their credentials.

The Value of Vocation

One of the ultimate returns on educational investment is the professional opportunities a credential affords. To help students maximize this aspect of their education, we need to help learners better prepare for the future of work. We can begin by incentivizing a wider proliferation of dual enrollment programs, so high schoolers can get an early start on their college credentials.

We also need to make federal student aid flexible to the needs of a lifelong learner. Federal grant programs need to recognize and better serve students in all situations and stages of life who are seeking credentials to improve their opportunities. Underlying the federal student aid issue is an even bigger issue we need to address: we need to expand the notion of who our students are beyond the 18-24-year-old. As I describe in detail in my prior article about shifting the terminology from “student” to “learner,” students are increasingly diverse. Designing credentials, aid, and other academic aspects around the idealistic image of the full-time 18-24-year-old student is inaccurate and unhelpful. We can improve learners’ outcomes by recognizing the real-life circumstances they face and helping them accordingly. One institution that has tackled this head-on is Calbright College. Calbright College is California’s online, job-competency based community college focused on career preparation and economic mobility for working adults who lack easy access to traditional forms of higher education. Calbright offers flexible, free skills-based programs that provide tangible economic value for both working adults and their future hiring managers.

Repairing Higher Ed’s Reputation Through Accountability and Value

Improving our colleges’ accountability to competency-based outcomes will definitely benefit our students. Our institutions will also reap the benefits of this responsibility. Let’s face it: higher education doesn’t currently have a stellar reputation. It’s taken a big hit in public polls and the way Americans perceive academia. According to a 2018 Pew Research Center survey, “about six-in-ten Americans (61%) say the higher education system in the United States is going in the wrong direction.” The top two reasons participants gave for having this viewpoint were that “tuition costs are too high” and “students are not getting the skills they need to succeed in the workplace.” Both of these point to issues with the real and perceived value, as well as the outcomes, of a college degree.

Especially as we work to shift the narrative of education as a private good to education as a public service, higher education needs to repair its image in the minds of the public. Becoming accountable to the people is the best way to win their favor. We can no longer rest on the notion that our college exists, therefore it is inherently valuable. For higher education to maintain our position as the surest way to further opportunity, we need to concentrate on student satisfaction metrics, post-graduation progress, and educational ROI. We can chart a successful path forward by holding ourselves accountable to delivering real value that changes the trajectory of a person’s life in demonstrable terms.

Are You Ready to Promote Competence over Completion?

As we usher in the era of academic accountability, we need clear strategies to help colleges set and achieve student-centered outcomes that transcend mere completion. I’ve provided a few approaches and tactics above; what are yours? What do you think higher education institutions should do to make sure they deliver real value to students post-graduation? Please answer below so we can continue this important conversation.

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