Network aims to close ‘skills gap’

To close the job skills gap, the National Network of Business and Industry Associations is working to set national standards for industry-approved job credentials, make education and job training more effective and efficient, expand work-based learning, encourage employers to “hire for competency” and create more pathways to good jobs.

Employers want to “improve the quality of credentials used for hiring and promotion,” writes Mary Alice McCarthy on EdCentral.  

The focus reflects growing and widespread frustration with the opacity of existing educational credentials, particularly academic degrees, which tell employers relatively little about what a graduate can actually do. It is also a response to the proliferation of non-degree credentials over the past decade, such as certifications, certificates, and badges, and the difficulty employers (and job seekers) confront in evaluating the value of these new credentials. Many of them are only as good as the paper they are printed on. But others, particularly industry-accredited, standards-based certifications and competency-based certificates with third-party assessments, do a great job reliably validating the skills and competencies employers need.  

. . . If the Network can build trust in, and widespread adoption of, industry-wide credentials among their members, it can serve as an essential foundation from which to drive change in educational programs and improve labor market outcomes.

Credential confusion makes it hard for employers to find talent and difficult for students to make good college and career choices, concludes McCarthy.

Rubio: Dream the affordable American Dream

Education and the American Dream was the theme of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s keynote speech at Making Community Colleges Work, a Next America session sponsored by National Journal at Miami Dade College.

The son of immigrants, Rubio used Pell Grants, student loans, work study and summer jobs to pay for a four-year degree and law school. He started his career as an attorney with $100,000 in student loans.

To find a good-paying job, “it is vital that you get the right degree geared toward the right industry,” Rubio said.

Nationally, majors such as business, liberal arts, and hospitality have underemployment rates at or above 50 percent. There are simply more graduates than jobs in these industries. Meanwhile, engineering, health services and education all have underemployment rates less than 25 percent. 

Students and their families need to be equipped with the information necessary to make well-informed decisions about which majors at which institutions are likely to yield the best return on investment. This is why I, along with Senator Ron Wyden, proposed the “Student Right to Know Before You Go Act,” which aims to give students reliable data on how much they can expect to make versus how much they can expect to owe.

Rubio called for making income-based repayment the universal method for student loans.  He also proposed an alternative to student loans known as Income Share Agreements.

Let’s say you are a student who needs $10,000 to pay for your last year of school. Instead of taking this money out in the form of a loan, you could apply for a “Student Investment Plan” from an approved and certified private investment group. In short, these investors would pay your $10,000 tuition in return for a percentage of your income for a set period of time after graduation – let’s say, for example, 4 percent a year for 10 years.

This group would look at factors such as your major, the institution you’re attending, your record in school – and use this to make a determination about the likelihood of you finding a good job and paying them back. . . . Your only obligation would be to pay that 4 percent of your income per year for 10 years, regardless of whether that ends up amounting to more or less than $10,000.

Income Share Agreements are a great idea, writes Richard Vedder. Investors “buy equity in students as opposed to lending to them.” The risk shifts from students to investors.

Rubio also called for better career and vocational education in high school, apprenticeships and “more pathways for working parents” at the community college level.

Reforming the “broken accreditation system” would open the door to “new, innovative and more affordable competitors,” he said. He proposed a new accrediting agency for online education. With standardized tests to demonstrate competency, students could learn online or on the job and earn a low-cost job certification or degree.

Texas creates 3-year ‘affordable’ bachelor’s

three-year bachelor’s of applied science degree will cost $13,000 to $15,000 for Texas students, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education. The competency-based degree was developed by South Texas College and Texas A&M University at Commerce under the aegis of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. Students will mix online and face-to-face learning.

The degree emphasizes organizational leadership, the board said, adding that the program “will culminate with a digital-capstone experience where students will apply their knowledge and skills to real-world business problems.”

The coordinating board said that the new offering was “a faculty-driven initiative, developed by community-college and university faculty,” but “we also listened to what national and regional employers are saying they really want: graduates with critical-thinking skills who are quantitatively literate, can evaluate knowledge sources, understand diversity, and benefit from a strong liberal-arts and sciences background.”

Shirley A. Reed, South Texas College’s president, said in a statement that the new degree “is a transition from colleges measuring student competencies based on time in a seat to now allowing students to demonstrate competencies they have acquired in previous employment, life experiences, or personal talents.”

Two years ago, Gov. Rick Perry called on the state’s colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees that would cost students no more than $10,000 each, notes the ChronicleUT-Permian Basin offers a $10,000 bachelor of science four-year degree, while UT-Arlington and UT-Brownsville offer similar programs, developed through partnerships with community colleges and school districts.

The Texas Affordable Baccalaureate Program is supported by the College for All Texans Foundation and by a two-year, $1-million grant from Educause and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Online instruction will upend the economics of higher education, according to The Economist.

What do students learn in college?

Massachusetts is leading a nine-state effort to measure what students learn in college, writes Marcella Bombardieri in the Boston Globe.

The plan is to compare students’ work, including term papers and lab reports, rather than using a standardized test.

“There is tremendous interest in this nationally, because everybody in higher education knows, if this doesn’t work, the next answer is a standardized test probably imposed by the federal government or by states,” Commissioner Richard M. Freeland said at a state Board of Higher Education meeting . . .

The Association of American Colleges and Universities is overseeing the project, which recently received $1 million in funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Some professors are worried that campuses or instructors may be punished for poor results when they are doing their best to help students who arrived on campus underprepared, Paul F. Toner, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association and a higher education board member, told the Globe“I think there’s just a concern that they’re going to be held accountable for things beyond their control,” he said.

Before reaching out to other states, Massachusetts conducted a pilot project last spring. Seven campuses — including several community colleges, Framingham and Salem state universities, and the University of Massachusetts Lowell — gathered about 350 samples of assignments students who were nearing graduation had completed for classes.

Then a group of 22 professors spent three days over spring break at Framingham State evaluating the work for what it showed about each student’s abilities in written communication, quantitative literacy, or critical thinking, said Bonnie Orcutt, director of learning outcomes assessment for the Department of Higher Education.

Massachusetts is working with Connecticut, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, Minnesota, Oregon, Rhode Island and Utah to expand the experiment. 

Certification raises earnings

More than 50 million U.S. adults, or one in four, have earned a professional certification, license or educational certificate, according to a new Census report on alternative credentials. For workers with less than a bachelor’s degrees, certificates and licenses provide an “earnings premium.”
Alternative Education Credentials
“Getting an academic degree is not the only way for people to develop skills that pay off in the labor market,” said Stephanie Ewert,co-author of the report.

Certifications and licenses are valuable in many fields, including business/finance management, nursing, education, cosmetology and culinary arts.

Around 30 percent of employed adults held an alternative credential, compared to 16 percent of the unemployed and 13 percent of those not in the labor force.

Seventy-one percent of workers in technical fields hold an alternative credential, the report found.

Certifications that “signal specific competencies” make it easier for jobseekers and employers to find each other,  writes Mary Alice McCarthy on Ed Central. “Signals at the lower end of the job market . . . are relatively scarce.”

For people who don’t have the time, disposition, or financial means to complete a college degree, the positive economic return to alternative credentials is welcome news.  For education and training providers worried about improving the labor market outcomes of their students, the report points to the value of embedding stackable and competency-based credentials into their programs.  

And for the research and advocacy community, the results raise a host of new and important questions about how credentials function at different tiers of the labor market, how we ensure their quality, protect credential-seekers from worthless credentials, and use non-degree credentials to improve job quality. 

The U.S. workforce would look a lot better in international comparisons if certificate holders without college degrees were counted as trained workers, McCarthy adds.

Top 10 higher ed stories of 2013

The rise of MOOCS lead Ed Central’s Top Ten Higher Ed Stories of 2013. “The massive open online courses have huge potential to bring learning to more people, and to do it cheaper.”

Also on the list is U.S. Department of Education approval for Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America, “the first school to award federal aid based on direct assessment of students’ learning.”

President Obama sent higher education stakeholders into a tizzy with his August announcement that the administration would implement a wide-ranging plan to get college costs under control. The centerpiece of the plan would rate colleges on a variety of metrics, and with Congressional approval, tie the ratings to financial aid eligibility.

Congress lowered interest rates on federal student loans and tied the rates to the market.

“Merit aid madness” benefits the wealthiest students.

(Colleges) “increasingly using their institutional financial aid as a competitive tool to reel in the top students, as well as the most affluent, to help them climb up the U.S. News & World Report rankings and maximize their revenue.

Other top stories are questions about the fairness of income-baseded repayment, policy changes for Parent PLUS loans, the rewrite of gainful employment regulations, data transparency and a OECD report “identifying one in six Americans as lacking basic skills necessary for the workforce.”

Ed Central proposes a college scoreboard design.

Getting competency right

Competency-based education is super-hot — but nobody’s quite sure what it means, reports Inside Higher Ed. A new Lumina-funded group, the Competency-Based Education Network (C-BEN) will discuss how to do competency ed right.

“There’s really a danger of people just repackaging what they’re doing and calling it competency-based education because it’s the buzzword du jour,” said Amy Laitinen, a former Education Department and White House official who is deputy director of the New America Foundation’s higher education program.

Competency-based education assesses learning outcomes, regardless of whether the student learned in class, online, on the job, through experience or by reading books.

Decades ago pioneering institutions like Alverno College, Excelsior College, Thomas Edison State College and others with a focus on adult students began assessing competencies and issuing college credit for experiential learning. As with Advanced Placement tests, students could pass assessments and earn credit for knowledge and skills they gained outside the traditional classroom.

Western Governors offers a twist on this model. Created in 1997, the online university added the element of self-paced instruction. Students at Western Governors can work through automated, asynchronous online course material at their own speed. And the university’s instructors act more like tutors than professors in a lecture hall.

A third style first hit the scene this year. This approach, which is called “direct assessment,” drops the credit-hour standard and completely severs the link between competencies and the amount of time students spend mastering them.

Earlier this year the federal government and regional accreditors approved direct assessment offerings from College for America, a subsidiary of Southern New Hampshire, and Capella University. Northern Arizona University, the University of Wisconsin system and Brandman University are developing direct-assessment programs.

Competency-based education would give students more choices, cut college costs and help them find jobs, writes Jesse Saffron.

From competency to credentials

Marcus Carmicle trained to be a nursing aide and then a licensed practical nurse at Bluegrass Technical College in Kentucky. After 19 years as an LPN, he’s finally completing a nursing degree. The competency-based online program at Kentucky Community and Technical Colleges is making it possible to achieve his goal.

Meeting Students Where They Are

Meeting Students Where They Are profiles students in competency-based degree programs. Students say competency programs are demanding, according to the report by the Center for American Progress and the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning. Partial mastery isn’t good enough. Nobody squeaks by with a C.

Students said the competencies they learned apply directly to their work. Competency is “what employers look for, not how many hours you sit in a classroom,” said one student.

Adult students value the flexibility, the report says. “I wouldn’t have gone back to school if I had to give up my job,” said an MBA student. “I was only willing to go into so much debt.”

Student said they needed a degree to advance in their jobs. For example, a nurse with an associate degree needed a bachelor’s to be promoted.

Students value the chance to interact with classmates, the report finds. Predominantly online programs don’t offer that opportunity.  Coaches, advisors and mentors also play an important role.

Financial aid should be available for students in competency-based programs, CAP and CAEL advocate. The next version of the Higher Education Act should identify ways to measure student progress other than by the credit hour.

“Competency-based education is spreading among community colleges” with help from Western Governors University, reports Inside Higher Ed.  WGU “has helped 11 community colleges create their own competency-based degrees and certificates, mostly in information technology tracks” in the last year. The Gates Foundation and the U.S. Department of Labor have provided start-up funding.

It’s time for a smarter (and cheaper) sheepskin

High-tech start-ups are retooling college instruction, writes venture capitalist Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn, in The New Republic. We need to “make certification faster, cheaper and more effective too,” he writes.

. . . a diploma is essentially a communications device that signals a person’s readiness for certain jobs.

But unfortunately it’s a dumb, static communication device with roots in the 12th century.

We need to . . .  turn it into a richer, updateable, more connected record of a person’s skills, expertise, and experience. And then we need to take that record and make it part of a fully networked certification platform.

There’s a lot more to college than earning a diploma, responds Michael Gibson, who works for the anti-college Thief Foundation, in Forbes. To lower the debt to party ratio, we need to consider “all the friendships formed at school, the esprit de campus, all the networks.” What about beer pong?

College consists of: the clock tower, the stadium, the frat/sorority house and the admissions office, Gibson writes.

Taken together this is like an awful cable TV package. To get HBO, you also need to pay high prices for all those unwatchable stations like the Hallmark Channel. The future of higher education will involve unbundling this package and offering cheaper, higher quality substitutes.

The clock tower represents the amount of time spent studying a subject.

 Classes are measured in hours per week; exams are given in hour length chunks; and students need some requisite number of hours in any subject to signal mastery. It is remarkable that we still use the hour as a substitute measure for learning to this day.

. . .  we are on the cusp of having the technology to unbundle and decentralize this piece of the college puzzle. Coursera, Udacity, and other massively open online courses are only getting started in their effort to demolish the clock tower and provide the customized certification Reid Hoffman describes. What the fireplace, another medieval invention, is to the cold, the clock tower is to learning: proximity used to matter. And now it doesn’t. Central heating is better.

The stadium represents the tribal experience, which is very important to alumni. The frat house represents the friendships that lead to future networking. The admissions office confers status. These will be harder to replace than the clock tower, writes Gibson.

In the near future, the residential college experience will become a luxury item, I predict. Most people will decide it makes more sense to hang out with their friends, play beer pong, root for a professional football team and earn a low-cost career credential.

Adults earn college credit for what they already know

Working adults will be able to earn college credit for what they already know, through the University of Wisconsin’s Flexible Option, reports NPR. Students will be able to earn a degree by proving they’ve mastered skills and knowledge.

Katie Hyland, a helicopter transport nurse at Children’s Hospital in Milwaukee, earned an associate degree in nursing five years ago. Now she needs a bachelor’s degree to keep her job. The hospital has given her three years to get it. She thinks she can finish in half the time through the nursing flex program.

UW faculty is designing ways to measure competencies, says Doris Schoneman, who helped create the nursing flex program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

MARGE PITROF: Faculty will also grade the assessments, and if the students pass, they’ll get the course credits. Schoneman says an advisor will guide each student, but the program does not include classmates or face time with instructors.

SCHONEMAN: The student needs to be self-directed and be able to set goals and to meet them. It’s not any easier; it’s just a different way.

In NPR’s comments, “Skepticmd” praised the flex program, but noted the report missed the real issue about Katie Hyland.

Specifically, what has changed about the job that it now requires a bachelor’s degree? Where is the proof that requiring current employees to expend time, opportunity costs and money on further baccalaureate studies will improve patient outcomes on the heliport landing? The new standard . . . creates a barrier to employment for otherwise competent and qualified individuals.

Will the helicopter nurse do her job any better once she earns a four-year degree? It seems unlikely, writes Skepticmd.

I think that’s a very good point.