Community Colleges: Stacking Credentials as a Bridge to Higher Education

Community colleges traditionally were created to address the population of learners who pursued two-year degree programs, which often led to transferring into a four-year university degree. However, as global skills gaps have increased, the need to shift from a traditional student demographic and outcome, to one that meets the needs of lifelong learners seeking to re-skill or upskill to stay relevant, has become critical. Lack of funding and infrastructure created challenges for many community colleges seeking to pivot to meet this new demand.

“I’m an old woman, and I have tried to run at this problem my entire life,” said Gail Mellow, a president emeritus of the City University of New York’s (CUNY) LaGuardia Community College. “You see small things that have moved us forward, but … we can’t wait any longer.”

A growing number of community colleges have begun to reexamine how to evaluate student outcomes, skills, and even what, exactly, counts when it comes to college credit. In some cases, skills-based credentials can be stacked, education can be paused and returned to when the student is ready, and degrees have taken on new meaning.

Here are some of those developments and what they mean when it comes to the skills-based economy in the community college space.

The Community College Difference

One of the reasons community colleges have been so popular hails back to the business adage of “location, location, location.” These schools can be located in rural communities miles away from their university counterparts making the relationship with local employers even more important.

Community colleges have traditionally offered students two things: core university classes and focused two-year degrees that are designed to provide them with the basic skills and education to work in their local workforce. In other words, the colleges work closely with local employers and businesses and attempt to prepare skilled workers to fill job positions.

This has resulted in community colleges offering certificate programs and other alternative credentials, including vocational-technical programs, to meet the needs of their community. In some cases, these institutions have transitioned from two-year community colleges to junior colleges and even to four-year universities.

This still left some issues community colleges needed to deal with to be more viable solutions for a more significant number of students. With the global pandemic, lockdowns of 2020, and technological advances, a new opportunity emerged.

The New Community College

While four-year universities often gather a lot of data about courses from several schools within the larger institution, community colleges do not always gather as much learner and course data. They’re often smaller and have limited budgets for IT and technology. Historically, this put them at a disadvantage, but in a new dynamic, it offers them a unique advantage.

“Once we started to gather digital data,” Raymond Allen, part of the records department at the College of Western Idaho, told us, “we didn’t have a lot of legacy data to digitise. It was almost like starting with a fresh slate, even though we had to convert a lot of information from paper to digital formats.”

The college, located in Caldwell, Idaho, is one of several in the area, including Treasure Valley Community College (with campuses in Nampa, Idaho, and Ontario, Oregon). There are universities in the area, and the institutions try to work together, but historically, the transition from one to the other was not always a smooth one.

“Transferring credits has been problematic in the past,” Allen told us. “Especially when it came to maths and science courses. Sometimes students would find themselves [at a University] retaking anywhere from 1 to 3 courses unless they had completed their associate degree,” he told us. “Those who moved to a four-year college before graduation found themselves at a disadvantage rather than an advantage.”

It’s not just Idaho, either. Students in the Mesa Community College system, including Gilbert Community College and other community colleges in the area, would sometimes have to retake courses even at nearby universities like Arizona State. Students were advised to check the articulation agreement, a document where community colleges and universities built a transfer relationship, to ensure that courses would “count” once they continued their education.

In fact, preparing to transfer from a two-year school to a four-year school was far from easy. Even high school and college counsellors could not always give the best advice. And if the student moved from state to state, the process could be even more difficult.

The solution? In states like California, community colleges have combined forces in efforts like the California Virtual Campus, combining the power of 115 schools to offer over 90 associate degree transfer programs and over 80 fully online certificate programs. This is only a part of Vision 2030, an initiative designed to increase equity, access, and success in education through community colleges.

Weber State in Utah, once a community college with some vocational programs that has become a university, uses “stackable” courses to enable students to build their degrees over time.

“Students start with a certificate or associate’s degree. Then, they have the option to take some time off from school to travel and engage in other activities. When they are ready, they can return, or they can move right from graduation into a bachelor’s program,” Tracey Smith of Student Support told us. “Or students can work in their field awhile and then come back for a master’s. Flexible schedules and stackable credentials enable students to pursue their education at their own pace without losing credits or time.

Even the automotive certificate program now offers college credit for all courses students take. “If a student wants to leave and work in the field for a while, they can then return if they want to move into a management or supervisory position and complete a degree that will enable them to do just that.” is another alternative. It is the brainchild of Tade Oyerinde, a serial entrepreneur since he dropped out of universities in the U.S. and Britain a decade ago. His goal is to create a national online community college that uses a system of rigorous student support and full-time instruction. Courses are taught by adjunct professors from around the country. The program’s stated goal is a higher completion rate, but in addition, students will be better prepared for higher education or employment, whichever path they choose.

The common principle in all of these efforts is that skills matter just as much as degrees. The student who has worked in the field will often, with the right skills and education, make a better manager or supervisor than someone who comes from outside the industry with a higher degree.

An Awesome Future

This is not a trend that is just happening in Utah and California. All over the United States, community colleges are uniting, stepping up their education and certification game, and working to ensure both student success and alignment with the local workforce and universities in their state.

And more and more states are offering community college programs for free or at extremely reduced rates. In fact, it is possible for students to attend community college effectively for free in 31 states currently, with more being added to that list all the time. The offering in Massachusetts is structured so that millions of students across the state immediately qualify. More of these colleges offer online courses than ever before, with some offering courses under a hi-flex model, where students can attend in-person, remote, live online classes and recorded lectures.

One of the most exciting developments in the stackable credential space is the improvement of learner dashboards and personal evidence records. The example of the Hunter School of the Performing Arts is just one of the ways Edalex is pioneering the application of this technology. The same principles can be applied and easily implemented at the community college level and beyond, even to entire community college systems similar to the networks in California, Arizona, Idaho, Arkansas, and other states around the U.S.

While offering college credits and structuring degrees differently is only one part of the equation, it’s an important one. The combination of digital badges, an enhanced learner dashboard, and a more robust personal evidence record combine to make credentials portable and easily accessible, but there are other benefits.

In short, not only does learning done in the classroom count, but learning and experience outside of formal learning institutions also become a part of a personal evidence record. The showcasing of skills takes centre stage.

Connecting with Communities Through Learning

As we talk about the future of learning, community colleges, vocational schools, and other similar learning institutions will come to play a vital role. They are located in and around communities not reached by their higher learning brother and sister institutions. These colleges have the potential to equip the tech-enabled learner for immediate entry into the workforce while also supporting future educational efforts.

And at Edalex, we can be a big part of that. Using the latest in education technology, we can help create learner dashboards that show students their progress in real-time. We can help educators and learners view learning in the light of a larger cohort, enable students to identify and showcase their skills, and give employers insights into who they are hiring and how their skills align with position requirements.

It all starts with a consultation and a demonstration of how your learning institution can move from what it is now to what you want it to be. Curious? Contact us today to learn more. We look forward to working with you, your faculty, and your students to make tomorrow’s tech-enabled learners a reality.

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