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Aurora Institute

What Comes after “Next”?

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Michelle Weise

Issue(s): Federal Policy, Leverage Career and Technical Education

nextThe question seems laughable, doesn’t it? Particularly for institutions just beginning to hash out what a CBE program might look like for their students, it seems outlandish to consider what comes afterwards. There’s already so much to build and think about now.

At the same time, with newness and promise come chaos and the mad scramble to find the right vendors, partners, financial aid delivery systems to cater to rolling registration, new accreditation management processes, and you-name-it. It’s almost impossible to think about what comes next when everything else in the immediate future seems to bear down more urgently.

Perhaps for others, it’s just as challenging to bother with what’s next when what’s now is so comfortable and going so well. Why experiment when what we’ve got going on now is working just fine?

Each organization implementing CBE probably finds itself somewhere on this continuum between chaos and stability. It’s worth pointing out, however, that almost everyone engaged in building CBE programs today is working within the confines of a degree program. Especially for those in the business of delivering two- or four-year degree programs, it’s difficult to imagine something else replacing a college degree. Inside Higher Ed recently ran a piece on the undeniable pay-off of a four-year degree. Indeed, earnings premiums are often most promising for those who complete their baccalaureate programs. It therefore seems utterly logical to invest in degree programs.

The rub is, of course, that students must complete their degrees, and many don’t. Community college statistics bring this problem into sharp relief: Federal statistics show that only 21 percent of first-time, full-time students earn an associate’s degree within three years, and only one in five moves on to earn a bachelor’s degree in six years.

Despite these dismal statistics, there is mounting evidence that there is more to upward mobility than a college degree. Census Bureau data reveal that in terms of pure earnings premiums, students benefit more from pursuing a professional certification over a standalone associate’s degree.

So, here’s what’s after next: everything that comes before the two- or four-year degree. Learning providers will have to consider building more and affordable on- and off-ramps to what is currently a very linear and insular experience. There’s a reason why coding bootcamps, immersive programs like General Assembly, and nanodegrees are gaining traction. There are over 91 million people over the age of 18 with high school degrees and/or some college who stand to increase their earning power by attaining an alternative credential.

Online CBE innovators are particularly well suited to build pathways that do not necessarily end in degrees. Because learning is not broken down by subject matter, an online competency-based education provider could easily combine and stack learning modules together in different ways and tailor programs for a wide variety of industries.

If more online CBE providers were to collaborate with employers in the creation of specific pathways or micro-certifications, companies would know that the pipeline of candidates would most certainly have the requisite skills for the work ahead. These direct partnerships would be the perfect vehicles for jobs that don’t necessarily require a degree. Burning Glass Technologies revealed in its report, “Moving the Goalposts: How Demand for a Bachelor’s Degree Is Reshaping the Workforce,” that many employers require degrees for middle-skills jobs, but use the degree as a screen or general sorting mechanism that may not relate to the jobs’ duties. In fact, the degree often functions more like a signaling mechanism of soft skills or of the capacity to advance and grow. All of this imprecision has led to a trend called upcredentialing—asking for higher and more degrees for jobs that don’t really require a degree in the first place. There is a clear need for more targeted signals or alternative pathways for stackable credentials that could later lead to an associate’s or bachelor’s degree.

Nevertheless, critics like to attack these routes aligned to labor market needs as narrow training for single dead-end jobs—not careers. This, however, is an oft-repeated and false dichotomy: job training in no way prevents students from learning how to learn for a lifetime. Yes, there are certainly middle-skills jobs that pay well and don’t lead to better jobs, but there are ways to be much more intentional about building middle-skills career pathways.

In a paper called “Bridge the Gap: Rebuilding America’s Middle Skills,” produced by Accenture, Burning Glass Technologies, and Harvard Business School, the authors illustrate how production work done by computer numerical control (CNC) machine operators may be high-paying but has no lifetime value or lacks a clear pathway to other high-paying jobs. They then contrast these sorts of dead-end middle-skills jobs with middle-skills career pathways that begin surprisingly with a job like retail work. Interestingly, retail serves as an excellent starting point to “more robust and diverse prospects for career advancement,” such as management and supervisory roles in logistics, administration, accounting, sales, and customer service. According to the report, “Not only are the wages higher in almost all these cases, the occupational demand is either high or very high, with tens of thousands of job postings.” If America is to remain competitive, the authors assert, employers will need to start being more deliberate about cultivating a long-term pool of skills for their employees and building these sorts of middle-skills career pathways.

Degree programs are undeniably important, but we also need to think about everything that comes before the baccalaureate. Online CBE providers can play a tremendous role in building these career pathways because they are already thinking critically and intentionally about liberal arts competencies and the application of knowledge from learning to know into learning to do. There is a huge demand—a $500 billion marketplace of non-degree credentials according to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce—for alternative career pathways for over 91 million Americans.

What comes before the degree is what comes after next.

Dr. Michelle R. Weise is a senior research fellow in higher education at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation. Michelle’s commentaries and research have been featured in a number of publications such as Harvard Business Review, The Economist, The Boston Globe, Inside HigherEd, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and USA Today. She is the co-author with Clayton M. Christensen of Hire Education: Mastery, Modularization, and the Workforce Revolution.