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Community colleges see efficiency and enrollment gains with online course sharing. Also, understanding and improving certifications, N.C.’s priority credential list, and training for tech jobs. (Sign up here to get this newsletter.)

Community College Networks

As they struggle with historic enrollment declines, many community colleges are reassessing their online and hybrid programs, including what worked and what didn’t during the pandemic-driven pivot to virtual learning.

Online content sharing across a consortium is an appealing option for some two-year colleges. They can more easily meet student demand by tapping online courses from other colleges. And community colleges can bring in outside tuition money without having to compete on marketing with four-year universities that tend to have much deeper pockets.

Acadeum is an online course-sharing platform that so far has largely focused on small private colleges. About 400 institutions offer 30K courses across the networks that use the service.

“Our roots are in the private independents,” says David Daniels, the company’s president. But he says Acadeum is seeing interest from community colleges and public universities. “The problems are all the same.”

All 50 community college districts in Texas are part of a course-sharing consortium that is now powered by Acadeum. The Digital Higher Education Consortium of Texas, or DigiTex, was created for online course sharing way back in 1998. But participation tailed off as the group’s members developed their own online programs, says Judith Sebesta, executive director of DigiTex. And resources were a problem for the state-funded organization.

Likewise, the process was balky and heavy on one-off agreements. For example, Sebesta says a college might reach out to another institution to find a course for a single student who needed it. To be more strategic about course sharing, DigiTex signed up with Acadeum just before the pandemic.

“They are providing a technology that we never could have,” says Sebesta. “It’s just so much easier to use.”

How It Works: Each network must agree on the rules for course sharing. Home institutions vet courses from other network colleges—the teaching institutions—that they are interested in offering to students. Both sides then sign off on a student’s enrollment in an approved course.

Home institutions pay a small annual license fee. Teaching institutions pay to make courses available to the Acadeum network, as well as a small fee for each transaction.

The process for managing enrollments and payments across DigiTex is much more streamlined than it was before Acadeum, says Sebesta. But she says every college still gets to decide their level of participation while monitoring quality across the network.

“The home institution really has control,” Sebesta says.

The League for Innovation in the Community College also has partnered with Acadeum to offer course sharing across 10 of its member institutions. The platform acts as a cross-registration system, says Rufus Glasper, the league’s president and CEO, which eliminates the need to tweak existing online learning or student information systems.

Course sharing can help on the enrollment front, he says, particularly for rural community colleges.

“Community college students’ progression is heavily dependent on the availability of courses at the time and sequence they need them,” Glasper says. “A common challenge for community colleges, especially in rural areas, is finding enough qualified faculty in order to sustain and evolve their academic programs.”

The consortium approach means students aren’t left in the lurch when instructors aren’t available. And Glasper says it helps ensure that students don’t lose transfer credits or risk their financial aid eligibility.

DigiTex also taps course sharing to help rural colleges meet student demand, particularly in STEM fields and for in-demand, shorter-term courses. And the consortium’s most successful teaching institution is Western Texas College, which generated more than $100K in tuition revenue during its first year on the platform, with 647 students from 44 colleges and universities across the country taking online courses from the small college located in Snyder, Tex.

“The marketing piece is something we never did well,” Sebesta says. “We’re starting to show it can work for community colleges.”

Alternative Credentials: Acadeum recently began offering its first Coursera certificate, which is embedded in an online marketing course from Trine University, a private institution located in Indiana. The interest and potential to scale more nondegree credentials are there, according to Davis.

Glasper says the course network model helps two-year colleges be nimble in meeting employer demands with workforce-aligned credentials:

“Skills and demonstrated competencies are increasingly important in community colleges. Accessing certificates via course sharing enables our colleges to pivot on a dime in response to changing skills demands from employers.”

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The Other Cert

More than 8K certifications are available in this country, spanning a wide range of industry sectors. And roughly 43M Americans hold a professional certification or license, according to a series of reports published this week by the Corporation for a Skilled Workforce, the George Washington Institute of Public Policy, and Workcred.

“Among workforce credentials, certifications stand out for their exacting process for determining and assessing occupational knowledge and skills,” one report said. “Unlike degrees and certificates, they require passing a competency-based exam by an independent third party.”

Most certification holders also have an associate or bachelor’s degree, according to the three groups. Yet workers without degrees often earn certifications in construction, manufacturing, facilities management, IT, health care, and other industries.

“Certifications not only enable economic mobility, especially for those lacking bachelor’s degrees, they also serve as ongoing motivators of skill acquisition in an economy that depends on the skills of its workforce,” the groups said.

Yet despite their appeal, certifications may be the least understood form of postsecondary credential. They often are confused with certificates. And many employers, workers, students, policy makers, and education practitioners know little about the use and value of certifications.

Certification programs vary widely in their prerequisites, including the educational level and experience of students. Most are not accredited. And certifications are issued by a wide range of unregulated organizations, including professional associations, vendors, employers, and government agencies. Many lack transparency about their processes. And data collection is insufficient about these credentials.

To understand how to improve certifications, increase their use, and better integrate them into U.S. education and training systems, the three groups studied 16 different certifications. Their research included interviews with staff members at the issuing organizations.

The final report’s recommendations include:

  • Bring certification bodies into the policy-making process, such as federal, state, and public-private systems for collecting and housing information, allocating funds, and setting standards.
  • Format and store data so it is comparable across certification bodies and jurisdictions, and interoperable with data sets on degrees and certificates, as well as state longitudinal data systems.
  • Certification bodies should improve their internal processes by being more transparent about how they develop certifications, whether they are accredited, and how they report data. These organizations also should work together to develop common standards.
  • Governments and employers should encourage wider reliance on certifications in hiring, which would help open the labor market to a broader, more diverse talent pool.

The groups said governments and foundations should fund more research on the credentials. They conclude:

“The full potential of certifications goes unrealized because too little is known about them and because certification bodies are often not included in the broader credentialing system’s governance. The time has come to develop common standards for collecting and reporting information about their processes and to integrate certifications and their issuers into the broader U.S. credentialing ecosystem.”

Higher-Priority Certifications

North Carolina’s career information portal this week published a list of industry certifications and licenses that lead to good paying careers.

The list of 130 credentials was endorsed by a state working group that featured representatives from business groups, the North Carolina Community College System, and the office of Roy Cooper, the state’s Democratic governor. It will be updated annually based on input from businesses in the state.

The community college system said the goal of a centralized list is to help both students and employees identify the “higher-priority credentials” that employers use to screen workers for in-demand, high-wage careers.

“Due to the sheer volume of organizations issuing nondegree credentials, workers can find it difficult to identify the best option for their situation,” the system said.

Karen Elzey, Workcred’s associate executive director, welcomed North Carolina’s move, saying it could add clarity and transparency about certifications, certificates, and licenses. Elzey also cited a need for “more information about career and labor market outcomes of those who earn nondegree credentials.

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Open Tabs

Performance Funding

Missouri’s Legislature is considering a bill to link funding of the state’s public universities and community colleges to student earnings. The highest weighted metric would be the average annual earnings of students six to 10 years after they first enroll, Preston Cooper writes in Forbes. Institutions also would get credit for their enrollment of Pell Grant recipients.

Federal Nominee

The Biden administration will nominate Nasser Paydar as assistant secretary for postsecondary education at the U.S. Department of Education. Paydar is chancellor emeritus of Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis and executive vice president of Indiana University. “Paydar has championed equitable and affordable access to postsecondary education,” said Miguel Cardona, the education secretary.

Great Resignation

The jobs reshuffle is an opportunity to expand skills-based hiring and K-12 career pathways programs, Bruno V. Manno, senior adviser emeritus for the Walton Family Foundation, writes in a report for the American Enterprise Institute. These “promising approaches to identifying prepared and competent job applicants,” he writes, “displace the four-year college degree as the gatekeeper for job entry.”

Tech Hiring

“Thanks to years of investment from local universities, government agencies, and business leaders and Canada’s liberal immigration policies, Toronto is now the third-largest tech hub in North America,” Cade Metz of The New York Times reports. “It is home to more tech workers than Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., trailing only New York and Silicon Valley.”

Wraparound Supports

Nevada’s Clark County approved up to $7.6M for wraparound supports for students enrolled in the Culinary Academy of Las Vegas, Dana Gentry of Nevada Current reports. The nonprofit trains 2K students per year in its hospitality skills programs, which can be as short as three weeks. Applicants must have an annual income below about $14K per year, and tuition is free for Culinary Union members.

Homegrown OPM

The City University of New York system is spending $8M in federal relief funds to create an in-house online program management arm, reports Natalie Schwartz of Higher Ed Dive. CUNY’s School of Professional Studies will run the new CUNY Online, which will be the primary portal for promoting online programs. System officials expect it to help create 13 to 20 programs by fall 2023.

Pandemic Learning

The most trusted sources of student learning evidence during the pandemic have included presentations, portfolios, and capstones, according to a survey conducted last year by ExamSoft, in partnership with the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment. The 800 respondents, who spanned many roles in higher education, said the least trusted source was standardized tests.

Let me know what I missed? Catch you next week. @paulfain

A veteran higher education journalist and analyst, Paul focuses on the connections between education and the American workforce.