Building the ‘60-year curriculum’ on short credentials

The Univ. of Washington is a national research university and one of the top degree producers—yet it’s betting big on a lifelong-learning curriculum based on short credentials. Work Shift talks with the head of the university’s Continuum College about that move.

The professional and continuing education divisions of four-year universities could play a growing role in higher education as the pandemic continues to buffet labor markets.

Many of those units have deep experience with online and hybrid learning, modalities that are likely to continue attracting larger shares of working learners. And continuing education programs may also be able to tap into federal and state subsidies for expanding short-term credential offerings.

Experiments are expanding in this space. For example, the University of Virginia last year rolled out its UVA Edge, a one-year, 20-credit online program for working adults, which is jointly offered by the university’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies.

The University of Washington’s Continuum college is an established and innovative player in continuing education. With a range of credential programs that are designed to stretch across a career—what Continuum calls its 60-year curriculum—the college served about 50,000 students during the 2019-2020 academic year.

Rovy Branon is vice provost for Continuum College and oversees all of the flagship UW’s professional and continuing education programs. I recently asked Branon about short-term credentials, the divide between noncredit and credit-bearing programs, and more. A lightly edited version of our exchange is below.

Q: What’s your take on short-term Pell Grants?

ROVY BRANON: We believe a new social compact—involving learners, employers, governments, and educational institutions—is required to provide lifelong higher education. No single approach is likely to solve the issue. An over-reliance on government funds will lead to either: grift and fraud OR a high level of regulation that will stifle the need to deploy new programs as quickly as the economy is changing.

Some employers are offering increasingly rich education benefit programs. As some learners discovered during the pandemic, however, when you need to re-tool your education the most (due to layoff or economic shift) is when companies are laying off and cutting such benefits. So, vouchers, new forms of tax free/co-contributor accounts, and other options need deep exploration because new collaborations are required to solve this for everyone over a lifetime—a daunting prospect but doable.

Q: You’ve had success with scholarships for noncredit certificates. Is student demand strong enough to justify employer or government funding for certificate programs?

Branon: The UW Certificate Scholarship exists to break down barriers for Washington adults living on low incomes by providing access to in-demand skills and career opportunities. Partners such as AT&T, BECU, Boeing, and the Windermere Foundation help by covering 80-90 percent of the course fees for each recipient. 

With the hopes of making more scholarships available to meet rising demand, we are continuing outreach to Puget Sound employers and civic groups to raise awareness for the program and to show them how their partnership can help us deliver on this equity effort we launched four years ago—a first-of-its kind scholarship at the University of Washington. 

As wonderful as these scholarships are, more comprehensive approaches to funding adult programs are needed. As learners need to return to formal learning throughout their lifetimes, we need a new social compact between learners, employers, government, and higher education institutions about how to make these valuable certificate programs more equitably available.

Q: What do you say to folks who are skeptical about job-market returns for short-term certificate holders? And how do you ensure that the ones you offer are of high value?

Branon: Skepticism is not unexpected after what many people have experienced in the workforce during the last year. Learners must be savvy consumers, and they are understandably concerned about making the right choices. A short program does not require the same investment of time or money as a degree and it offers more focus on specific skills or a certain expertise than a degree. People need guidance in selecting a program that works for them and in understanding the benefits and limitations of nondegree programs. 

What we are experiencing now in our economy goes beyond shifts we would see in a typical business cycle. Our enrollment services coaches get asked things like, “What skills will I need looking for a job as we recover from the pandemic?” It’s a legitimate question. We are seeing evidence that people believe the changes we’ve seen over the last year will be long-lasting for our economy, the workforce, and the expectations of employers when it comes to the skills they value. 

We are also seeing another difference from past economic upheavals; as employers recover and evolve their businesses and identify new skill sets for employees, they are understanding how to connect with higher education more directly.

There is a growing awareness that this connection between higher ed and major employers needs to become even stronger. There have always been collaborations and partnerships. Prior to the pandemic, business-education collaboration was driven by the fact that there wasn’t enough talent to maintain growth. The need for college-educated employees spanned almost every sector. If you’re an employer in an area where you cannot find people with the skills for key jobs, the pandemic hasn’t changed that. 

The urgency now is to develop a talent pipeline and a learning ecosystem. 

Continuum College’s vision of the 60-year curriculum. Source: “2020 Year in Review: Husky Resilience Across the Continuum

During the post-pandemic recovery, talent gaps are likely to be acute in specific skills. That’s a strong motivator for employers to reach out to colleges and universities to seek coalitions. We need to work together to ensure that we’re providing students with the knowledge and skills businesses need.

Our certificate programs all have industry advisory boards that give us a real-time view into the tech skills that companies are asking for today and what they’ll be looking for next. For example, the advisory board for our certificate in data analytics includes senior tech people from Amazon, Expedia, Hulu, and Microsoft. 

Employers also are recognizing the value of having better educated employees and the value their employees place on having transferable credentials. Quoting Richard Branson, “Train people well enough so they can leave, treat them well enough, so they don’t want to.” To accomplish that, companies are increasingly looking for new pathways that combine company training with some kind of university programming.

Q: What is the potential for efforts to embed nondegree credentials and certifications in degree programs? Can they scale?

Branon: A few elements are converging that could spell the end of the credit/noncredit program divide. Digital credentialing is gaining an increasing foothold in the higher education ecosystem. As this happens, nondegree programs are beginning to express outcomes in terms of competencies, and not just learning assessments. Once converted to the “language” of competencies, institutions can more readily grant credit for these nondegree credentials.

Institutions founded to serve as credit aggregators (including Excelsior College and Thomas Edison State University) are formalizing partnerships with MOOC providers (and their respective institutional content partners) and continuing education units at research universities to create seamless pathways for students to count nondegree programs from those institutions as credit for a degree. This work gets much easier as digital credentials become the norm. So we expect to see a lot of growth coming in connecting learning in multiple forms to degree attainment. 

Q: I was intrigued by the essay you wrote on horizontal scale. What could this approach mean for lower-income and working adult students?

Branon: Horizontal scale is a great term for how institutions can now think more broadly about access. My colleagues at Georgia Institute of Technology, Nelson Baker and Yakut Gazi, developed the idea for this book as they began to see how it is possible to build rich learning experiences at scale and to do so at lower cost, but with the growing recognition that it is not just the instructional experience that must scale for students to get the full benefit of our institutions.

As I note in my chapter, scale can be a dirty word, but it is why our institutions exist in the first place: scale allows more services at lower cost to a greater number of students. Each era sees the limit of scale through the lens of the historical moment. It is quite feasible, however, that as soon as 10 years from now, we will talk about those “quaint 50K-student” research institutions as a smaller, more human version of the million+-student mega universities we see potentially emerging (in the same way those of us at a 50K institution today might talk about a 1,500-student liberal arts school).

Not every institution can or should approach the issue of scale in the same way. That is the primary strength of the system-less system of U.S. higher education: a wide variety of approaches that can meet diverse needs, rather than a more efficient but less creative Federal Ministry of Education. What we cannot do is remain okay with the status quo, which leaves too many behind.

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