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Competing on price

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UNT offers credits toward degrees for Coursera’s Big Tech certs. Also, StraighterLine’s Burck Smith on what’s next for noncollege course providers, and SHRM’s new survey on alternative credentials and hiring.


Competing on Price

StraighterLine went live in 2009, well before the “year of the MOOC” a decade ago.

The online course provider is not accredited. But its low-cost, subscription-based courses have been reviewed and recommended for credit by the American Council on Education. That means they can be used as credit-bearing entry-points for students who enroll in a degree program at one of the company’s 150+ college and university partners.

StraighterLine has grown steadily and now enrolls more than 45K students each year. And the company, which a private equity firm acquired two years ago, has gradually expanded its services. For example, partner colleges can refer underprepared students to StraighterLine courses as a sort of low-risk, white-label path to admission. 

Yet the online course revolution StraighterLine seemed to augur hasn’t happened. College tuition rates for online courses largely remain the same as their in-person equivalents. And the smooth credit transfer processes for online students who attend Western Governors and Southern New Hampshire Universities remain the exception to the rule.

Likewise, an Obama-era experiment to encourage ways for students to earn credit for learning from unaccredited providers failed, with a partnership featuring StraighterLine being the only one of eight to get off the ground.

Burck Smith, StraighterLine’s executive chairman and founder, remains confident that change is coming to higher education. 

A key driver will be the severe enrollment woes that are buffeting the industry, particularly open-access colleges, Smith says. Meanwhile, more students are enrolling in low-cost, national online providers and in low-priced noncollege options such as StraighterLine and Coursera.

“Although institutional innovations have largely not translated to lower list prices and net costs, there are some notable exceptions that have been good to see,” he says. “These outliers could become the norm if enrollment challenges persist and institutions feel pressure to compete on price.”

Smith also predicts that more colleges will start awarding credit for short-term credentials, such as professional certificates offered by tech companies, and increasingly will incorporate these noncollege credentials into their degree programs.

“Groups like Workcred, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, the Coalition of Urban Serving Universities, and UPCEA have already been hard at work on how to do this, and I expect this to become a trend,” says Smith.

The below news is one example of what he describes. And for the full interview with Smith, click over to Work Shift.

Credit for Professional Certificates

The University of North Texas introduced an online bachelor’s degree completion program two years ago on Coursera. The bachelor of applied arts and sciences is the first fully online undergraduate degree from a U.S. university on the MOOC platform. 

“Coursera’s got the reach. We’ve got the program,” says Adam Fein, vice president for digital strategies at UNT, a research university located in the Dallas–Fort Worth metro area that enrolls roughly 42K students.

UNT followed up by allowing students to count five professional certificates from Big Tech companies toward the degree. These five are among 19 of such credentials available on Coursera.

Students who complete any of the certs—four from Google and one from Meta—now can tap ACE credit recommendations to earn credits when they first enroll in the degree program, or they can bolt on the certificates later. The Google project management certificate is worth nine credits, for example.

The degree-completion program enrolls 575 students in its second year. So far, 28 students have added credits from professional certificates. The online degree path is designed to be easy to understand for students, Fein says, and credits from the certs automatically count toward a degree.

“If it gets the ACE credit, it will be accepted,” he says.

Coursera offers 11 entry-level certificates and specializations that are recognized by ACE. Credit recommendations can help in serving more learners, says Betty Vandenbosch, Coursera’s chief content officer.

“Entry-level certificates with transferable credits can provide an on-ramp for people without college degrees or tech experience to land fast-growing digital jobs in emerging industries,” she says. “Then, they can keep learning online, earn their degree, and advance in their chosen field.”

Transfer arrangements like UNT’s are becoming more common and have been at the center of the MOOC platform strategy since the companies shifted to a credential-anchored business model, says Sean Gallagher, founder and executive director of Northeastern University’s Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy.

“One of the keys to this type of desirable stackability seems to be that there’s a platform—Coursera, in this case—as the common denominator and ‘operating system’ across these programs,” he says. “This type of seamless articulation or credit transfer is much easier than out in the open market.”

Fein says UNT had few examples to study as it developed the program. The most relevant models were in graduate education, he says.

“We’re not talking about stackability. We’re actually doing it,” says Fein.

The university is one of Amazon’s more than 140 partner institutions for its free college program. Amazon employs roughly 37K workers in the region. Fein says the university has gotten interest from Amazon workers in the degree-completion program during recent visits to nearby fulfillment centers.

Short-term certificates and an online degree are good ways for students who have been out of education to stick their toe in the water with a low-risk, affordable option, says Fein. And state agencies in Texas back this sort of experimentation.

The Kicker: “Why would we make it all or nothing?” he asks. “If we’re not serving them online in DFW, someone else will.”

Alt Credentials and Hiring

Alternative credentials are increasingly popular with both individuals and employers—as AWS, IBM, and a host of other companies have made big investments in the space in recent years.

But there’s a persistent question of how much these credentials, either paired with a degree or instead of one, count in hiring and how quickly that’s changing.

What’s new: The Society of Human Resources Management Foundation has new survey results that get at that question.

  • SHRM found that the vast majority of executives, HR professionals, and supervisors it surveyed believe that alternative credentials convey credibility and are valuable for employee development.
  • But they rank relatively low in hiring considerations—well behind both experience and traditional education—and executives view them as more valuable than do either HR professionals or supervisors, who are most likely to make the final call on hiring.

The big idea: Better understanding those viewpoints and how they impact hiring decisions is critical as more people invest time and money in certifications, certificates, and other nondegree credentials.

On the whole, the survey indicates that, for many companies, alternative credentials matter on the margins but aren’t yet central to hiring decisions.

The details: For one, executives, supervisors, and HR professionals aren’t on the same page about the value and role of alternative credentials.

  • Half (50 percent) of executives said that alternative credentials had a high value, even relative to experience and degrees—but only 28 percent of supervisors and 15 percent of HR professionals said so.

The report recommends that employers focus more on getting stakeholders aligned and then put processes and procedures in place that formalize the role of alternative credentials in hiring. 

“Without that, the organization will not be able to meet their goals—whether that’s for hiring more diverse populations or any other hiring goal,” says Mary Wright, manager of apprenticeship at the SHRM Foundation. 

HR technology and data systems also haven’t kept up with the proliferation of credentials.

  • Almost half (45 percent) of the HR professionals surveyed said their organization now uses an automated screening system to review job applications—but only a third (32 percent) said their automated system recognizes alternative credentials.

HR professionals, supervisors, and executives also said that a lack of information about quality keeps them from considering alternative credentials more in hiring.

  • About 77 percent of executives, 67 percent of supervisors, and 49 percent of HR professionals said their organization would be more accepting of alternative credentials if their quality was more consistent.

Wright said major funders—like Walmart and the Charles Koch Foundation, to name just two—are investing in research and systems that should help with standardization. And credential providers, she says, are getting the message that they need to put real effort into demonstrating efficacy. Much work remains, of course.

“The sheer volume of the number of individual credentials requires that all stakeholders of credentials—providers, employers, and learners—continue to stress the importance of credential quality.” —By Elyse Ashburn

Open Tabs

Career Colleges

The ECMC Group will teach out its three remaining Altierus Career College campuses. ECMC previously managed the winding down of more than 50 campuses and online programs it purchased in 2015 from Corinthian Colleges, a large for-profit chain that shut down amid sanctions by the Obama administration. The three Altierus locations were the last remaining campuses from that transaction.

Graduate Certificates

The Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is offering two online, credit-bearing graduate certificates, the first of their kind from the university, which rolled out its iMBA in 2016. The 12-credit certificates are for learners who hold an undergraduate degree and don’t want or need a full graduate degree. The Gies College plans to offer up to six more certificates within the next year.

Tuition Benefits

Tyson Foods has partnered with Guild to offer a free college program to all of the company’s roughly 120K U.S. workers. Tyson plans to spend $60M over four years on the education benefit, which its employees can use at more than 35 colleges and education providers. The company also said it was expanding a free on-site adult education program for its front-line workers, which includes ESL classes.

Free College

College promise scholarships or free college programs substantially influence the college plans of high school students, according to a study by Taylor Odle, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Pennsylvania. The working paper found that the introduction of these programs increased the likelihood that a student will earn an associate degree or higher by 8.5 to 15 percentage points.

Flexible Work

Most graduating college seniors want the flexible work options that became common in the pandemic, according to a nationwide survey of 1K students by TimelyMD. When considering a job, respondents said the two most important factors—other than salary—were flexible work hours and a flexible work environment. The survey found that 58 percent of students prefer a fully in-person job.

The Job seriously considered skipping this week due to a nasty cold. Was nice to have that option, which many workers lack. —@paulfain

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