In light of the current challenges highlighted by the Covid-19 related enrollment and completion crisis in higher education, stackable credentials, micro-credentials, and intra-institutional transfer of credits has once again assumed center-stage in many calls for higher education reform. Stackable credentials may also include industry certifications.
Key characteristics of stackable credentials:
• Stackable credentials may also include industry certifications.
• Industry certifications are awards by a third-party organization such as an industry or occupational association
These certifications may be recognized by certificate or degree programs at postsecondary institutions that grant credits for the certification, thus stacking the industry certification. (https://www.nationalskillscoalition.org/resources/publications/file/Stackable-Credential-Scan-2.pdf)
The benefits provided to students who earn transferable credentials and embark upon alternative pathways to higher education is readily apparent and supported by quantitative and qualitative evidence. Yet, these ideas are by far new, in truth, they have been around and to varying degrees implemented for years. However, to date, the majority of institutions, including community colleges and those focused on CTE programs, have not yet achieved broad-based implementation of said initiatives. The reason for the relative uneven existence of these measures, which has fueled the current renewed interest in their efficacy, can be seen in the existing institutional barriers:
The “silo effect” is detrimental to the well-being of an institution of higher education.
Institutional structures: The majority of colleges and universities operate within a division/school/college structure, further subdivided by departments. Due to decreased funding and the adoption of outcomes-based funding in many areas, faculty, departments, mid-level administrators and executive leadership are forced to compete for the largest slice possible of the overall funding pie. By linking tenure, promotion and even employment to course enrollment and graduation numbers, decisions are not always centered primarily on student learning needs, but also guided by professional ambition and existential survival strategies. To that end, communication paths are not inclusive. Individual departments/divisions engage in programming decisions aimed at maximizing their respective area’s enrollment and thus revenue. Thus, institutions that do not have a centralized planning structure, nor are able to coalesce around one central mission, are forced to remain in vertical silos, doomed to create duplicate and overlapping programs, each unique, yet not connected or aligned with other departments/divisions. When even senior leadership are not in synch about programming objectives, everyone else follows suit. (https://www.aacu.org/publications-research/periodicals/horizontal-and-vertical-structures-dynamics-organization-higher)
Reliance professional relationships of key personnel: Where innovation succeeds, more often than not, they are due to especially collaborative efforts on the part of specific individuals who have established outstanding rapport with their counterparts in other departments and with stakeholders across the campus. While these productive working relationships are commendable and important, they lack the security and predictability of real, adaptive, and continued, institutional policies and processes.
Information remains cloistered in departmental silos, unshared and unused to its full potential. More often than not, communication paths are not inclusive. Individual departments/divisions engage in programming decisions aimed at maximizing their respective area’s enrollment and thus revenue. Thus, institutions that do not have a centralized planning structure, nor are able to coalesce around one central mission, are forced to remain in vertical silos, doomed to create duplicate and overlapping programs, each unique, yet not connected or aligned with other departments/divisions. When even senior leadership are not in synch about programming objectives, everyone else follows suit. (https://gregorylinton.com/2009/01/14/the-silo-effect-in-academia-and-its-consequences/)
Most institutions place little value on teamwork among faculty members. Tenure/promotion and funding processes incentivize individual competition.
Faculty resistance: The continued division between credit-bearing and non-credit courses, even when the course content is largely the same, developed and taught even by the same faculty, cannot be reasonably supported in an environment of diverse enrollment and degree completion paths for all students. A significant number of full-time faculty tend to resist a wider acceptance of stackable credentials and intra-institution credit transfer out of concerns over the presumed lack of academic rigor of non-traditional programming. Thus, they continue to insist on complex and time-consuming individual faculty-led approval and review processes. This inertia and impediment to student-centered learning is further complicated by the continued practice of tying course schedules to faculty workload requirements and even advancement. Rather than generating a schedule that is data-driven and responsive to degree completion needs regarding course availability and sequencing, many institutions still follow the model of faculty designing the semester offerings based on their preferences in subject matter and timing.
Incompatible systems block cross-campus, horizontal help.
Technological and bureaucratic logistics: Another key hurdle can be found in the divergent registration systems that can still be found within the same college or university. The two systems, non-credit and the academic credit, often do “communicate” with one another. Thus, any internal transfer of credits from the non-traditional, workforce development side of the house to the academic affairs, degree-seeking side cannot be completed, except on a case by case basis, which often involves archaic mechanisms, i.e. paper and in-house mail, and lengthy, subjective review processes by individual faculty, deans and even VP’s. The absence of any intra-institutional credit transfer structure and the lack of comprehensive PLA/CBE credit review policies may very well be the most significant barrier continuing to impede progress to this day.
Strategies to overcome institutional barriers:
Address the organizational structure of an institution. Most institutions would benefit from both horizontal and integrated communication, centered around a joint mission and strategic plan, rather than continuing to operate in vertical silos of responsibility and funding. Create leadership and reporting structures that support inter-departmental cooperation by engaging every member of the institution with a key stake in the success of its mission. Limit, or remove competitive funding and promotion criteria which place departments and divisions at direct cross purposes with each other, to reduce redundancies and increase cost-efficiency.
Emphasize horizontal integration by aspiring to become a learning organization.
Establish and promote transparent and universally applicable internal credit-transfer processes and policies. Such revision of organizational structures encourages growth and rewards “outside-the-box” thinking, as well as increases the speed with which changes in demand can be met. Additionally, by allowing for global, strategic planning from idea to final implementation, institutions secure the longevity and success of valuable innovation.
Revision of scheduling priorities and procedures: Course scheduling and sequencing need to align with degree completion goals and student scheduling needs, based on regularly collected and disseminated data. To that end workload requirements for faculty need to be addressed in holistic, global manner, not directly tied to departmental ties in order to be responsive to changing student learning needs.
Inspired leadership is necessary that focuses on empowering leaders on all levels to accept institutional responsibility in alignment with the mission and strategic plan.
Leadership: Senior-level involvement in operational details is counter-productive as it hinders agility in responsiveness and fosters dependence, rather than leadership growth. Position responsibilities and decision-making authorities for all senior, mid-level and departmental leadership needs to be clearly identified, supported, and communicated. Within the parameters of each given position, leaders and administrators should be confident to exercise their judgement and engage in decisions aligned with the institutional mission.
The final analysis: Across the country, most institutions engage in creating experimental, creative, and data-informed programs to meet an ever-growing variety in learning approaches and skills exhibited by 21st century students. Workforce development initiatives are an ideal pathway to gaining employable skills and knowledge and should also create an easy path towards further study through intra-institutional transfer. Innovative programs need to be structured around transparent, readily scalable processes and policies, that are not centered around a programmatic niche or pilot program. institutions want to move towards the dismantling of institutional silos as crucial for creating student-centered, innovative revenue generating programming, geared to meet the 21st century workplace and learning needs. To accomplish such horizontal integration, visionary leadership is vital, coupled with the establishment of robust, transparent, and objective institutional policies and operational processes.