Enrolling in college is not the same as graduating from college.
It’s a distinction that, when spelled out, seems sort of obvious. But it’s not one reflected in so many of the policies and practices of higher education. And that has contributed to the fact that 36 million Americans have earned some college credit, but not an actual degree.
Recognition of this phenomenon—and the problems it can cause for students, employers and colleges—is growing. There’s even a reference to it in President Biden’s new American Families Plan, which asserts that “far too many students enter college but do not graduate” and notes that “only approximately three out of five students finish any type of degree or certificate program within six years.”
A new initiative called “Credential As You Go” aims to shift this status quo by making it easier for students and workers to earn recognition for their learning—in increments smaller than the colossal college degree.
Its goals include creating a national credentialing system designed around what the journey through higher education and job training actually looks like for many people: intermittent, nonlinear and unpredictable.
The way college degree programs are currently organized, “a lot of students are not going to finish. Can we break learning into smaller units and into meaningful credentials along the way?” says Holly Zanville, a research professor and co-director of the Program on Skills, Credentials, and Workforce Policy at George Washington University. “Shouldn’t they get something for their learning?”
She’s leading the “Credential As You Go” charge along with Nan Travers, director of the Center for Leadership in Credentialing Learning at SUNY Empire State College, and Larry Good, president and CEO of the Corporation for a Skilled Workforce.
So far, with help from a grant from the Lumina Foundation, they’ve built a qualifications framework for incremental credentials. They’re seeking additional funding to test it out with state education systems in Colorado, North Carolina and New York by asking faculty teams to use the model to develop recognition for smaller segments of learning.
“What we are finding is one approach over here, one approach over here,” Travers says. “The idea of having a framework is it becomes purposeful. It’s not a one-time thing. How do we think about this from a systemic perspective?”
Leaders of “Credential As You Go” also are assembling an advisory board of higher ed and workforce leaders, which will meet in mid-May. And they hope to create a digital library of resources relevant to their work.
Moving away from a “degree-centric” model of higher end could have big payoffs, Zanville believes. She argues that the changes she envisions would be fairer to all students, especially the adult learners, low-income students and people of color who currently graduate at lower rates than their counterparts. And the approach could help employers understand the hundreds of thousands of credentials that workers can now pursue and list on their resumes as well as help colleges serve students more effectively.
All this adds up to an ambitious agenda. And the highly decentralized systems of higher education and employment in the U.S. mean that “there is not going to be one solution,” Zanville says. “No matter what we do is going to be layered and complicated.”
But with millions of people left behind by the current credentialing system, the organizers say it’s appropriate to think big.
“We see this much more as a movement than as a project,” Travers says.
To that end, the leaders of “Credential As You Go” are planning a national campaign to raise awareness about how and why recognition for learning could change, perhaps by telling the stories of people who might benefit from more bite-sized credentials.
“Everybody has someone in their life that has some college and no degree,” Travers says. “My own older brother, many years ago, got as far as his last course in his bachelor’s degree and didn’t finish. For someone like that, what does it look like—what are they allowed to do and not allowed to do because they don’t have that one piece of paper?”