Features

September/ October 2013 A Matter of Degrees

In the future world of “credentialing,” do you still need college?

By Anne Kim

Peg Walton, senior director for workforce readiness at Corporate Voices for Working Families, says many businesses across the country are clamoring to get college credit for their workers, primarily through partnerships with colleges similar to the one between Walmart and APU. Starbucks, for example, launched Starbucks U, where workers can get college credit from the City University of Seattle for completing such in-house trainings as Barista 100 and Barista Basics. And Jiffy Lube workers can now get credit from the University of Maryland University College for trainings from Jiffy Lube University. UPS and energy giant AREVA have also launched partnerships to convert work skills into college credit.

Whatever the motivations, escalating industry interest in alternative credentials is feeding a larger debate about the very purpose of a college degree—what it should measure and what it should mean. Should colleges produce graduates ready to work? Or should their goal be to produce well-rounded citizens, however that may be defined? Take liberal arts colleges, for example. Liberal arts majors earn an average of $31,000 a year when they first graduate, according to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, even though their degrees have likely cost at least three times that much. Are those colleges failing their students? Or are they providing value that’s not economically transferable? Is that worth it?

So long as college costs and student debt are spiraling upward, credentialing advocates say the balance should tip toward more pragmatic aims for higher education. “People go to college because they want to work,” Walton of Corporate Voices says simply.

Emily DeRocco, who served in the Department of Labor as the assistant secretary for employment and training under President George W. Bush and is now the principal of the consulting firm E3, agrees. She hopes the push toward skills-based credentials will act as a “wedge” forcing traditional institutions of higher education to consider new ways of thinking about their industry. In particular, she hopes higher education will embrace competency-based education, where what matters is a student’s mastery of specific skills, not the amount of time they spend in class or the alleged prestige of their school. Under a competency-based model, community college graduates could potentially be on equal footing with Harvard MBAs.

Parminder Jassal, the incoming executive director of the ACT Foundation, says competency-based credentials would especially benefit young, low-income, or adult learners, for whom a traditional path to a college degree is impractical.

Jassal points out that much of the K-12 world has already embraced competency-based education—the Common Core State Standards currently being rolled out in most of the nation’s schools are the most obvious example. The Obama administration has also championed the idea.

And, if you think about it, it’s not outside the mold of traditional education, says DeRocco. Much of graduate and professional education, including medicine and law, is already geared toward occupational skills, not general knowledge.

In the meantime, students in traditional higher education settings, like community colleges and four-year universities, are already benefiting from the influence of industry’s push to make higher education more focused on skills. For one thing, more traditional four-year institutions are welcoming tighter partnerships with industry and acknowledging industry’s needs for specific skills in shaping course work.

The Maryland Cybersecurity Center, launched by the University of Maryland at College Park in 2010, boasts partnerships with more than a dozen companies, including Northrop Grumman, SAIC, and Google. A new honors program starting this fall was the product of a $1.1 million investment by Northrop Grumman and comes with a paid internship opportunity for students—an attractive feature. “Parents think cybersecurity is a highly employable field, and if you get an honors degree from this program, you will be ├╝ber-employable,” said the university’s Eric Chapman.

Jan Klevis, the director of post-secondary and workforce education at Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Institute, envisions a “seamless pathway” between work and school that is the ultimate result of the credentialing movement. She imagines working adults having the opportunity to attend school part-time while earning credentials that are not only valuable within an industry but can later be converted into college credit. Under this system, she says, “you can get a four-year degree for under $10,000.”

The prototype of this future student might be forty-six-year-old Joe Weischedel. As a professional truck driver, Weischedel spent two decades hauling everything from produce to chemicals up and down the East Coast and across the country. On his longest hauls, he’s spent as much as four weeks away from home. After stints in community college as well as Temple University in Philadelphia, Weischedel joined the Army for four years and served as a combat medic. Around 2000, he tried college again with a few online classes at the University of Maryland and the University of Phoenix but ended up dropping out.

In 2010, he resumed the college education he had abandoned years earlier and enrolled online at APU. After receiving college credit for the skills he picked up in the military, it took him two years to earn his degree, taking two classes at a time and studying (while sometimes attending classes online) in hotel rooms on the road. This summer, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree, with honors, in transportation and logistics management. He also earned a professional certification from the American Society of Transportation and Logistics.

Today, Weischedel is looking at senior logistics management jobs that could quadruple his current salary driving trucks. “I had the practical experience, but I didn’t have the paper,” he said. “There was a ceiling before, but now I’ve broken through.”

Image credit: Mozilla, Lehigh Career & Technical School

Anne Kim is Editor of Republic 3.0.

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