One college’s hope for a new accreditor focused on career outcomes

Texas State Technical College, a leader in focusing on employability, is working with an upstart accreditor focused on career outcomes. We talked with the college’s leader about why.

Few colleges have been more focused on labor market results than Texas State Technical College. The two-year system made headlines a decade ago by voluntarily tying much of its budget and state support to the job-placement rates and salaries of graduates.

At the time, Michael Reeser, TSTC’s chancellor and CEO, was careful to suggest that his workforce-focused institution’s embrace of performance funding would be difficult to duplicate at most other colleges. But he also predicted that would change.

“Some sort of outcomes-based methodologies are inevitable for likely all of public higher ed,” Reeser said in 2012. “We thought we’d be the first.”

Indeed, the pressure for colleges to focus more on the employability of students has gotten much stronger over the last decade. Employers are begging for talent, says Reeser. And students increasingly are wary of paying to attend college if they believe a job won’t exist after graduation.

“Higher education is at risk right now if it doesn’t pay attention,” he says.

Texas State Technical College developed its own tool for creating structured language about skills for education and training providers. The system’s competency-based skills library, dubbed SkillsEngine, is now offered to other colleges through its Center for Employability Outcomes. It also has started working with the Workforce Talent Educators Association, a new accrediting agency that aims to put career outcomes front and center. (Read more here.)

We talked to Reeser about why he’s working with the upstart association and what hole it’s filling in the landscape of accreditors. 

Q: Recognizing TSTC’s long-standing focus on student outcomes, what do you hope WTEA’s benchmarking can do for the institution?

Reeser: The major planks within the conventional accreditation approaches are high-quality teaching, proven assessment standards, sound scholarship, appropriate student support, and prudent institutional governance and health. Together, these facets ensure that the overall quality of the education is high. WTEA’s intentions are to add employability to these factors and thus create an accreditation association that is better aligned with the core purpose of higher ed for a vast majority of today’s college students.

Q: What sort of benchmarking on career outcomes would be useful for TSTC? 

A: Historically, career outcomes are defined by job titles or by a summary set of skills, knowledge, and experiences. This approach is all that has been available for decades. Today, with big data as a routine possibility, those conventional approaches are proving to be too crude. They lack the resolution that modern data systems can provide. That’s why TSTC’s Center for Employability Outcomes has spent the last 10 years refining the various automated tools contained in our SkillsEngine platform. 

Using the SkillsEngine suite of tools, colleges can identify and assemble career-focused learning outcomes that provide a better match with the workplace. WTEA intends to use this platform and/or other proven automated systems that will provide a greater degree of fidelity between college curriculum and the skills demands of employers. For the first time, mass customization can be realized in higher ed and the student will be the primary beneficiary.

Q: If WTEA takes off, would you characterize it as a secondary form of accreditation? 

A: No, the approach taken by WTEA would be a co-equal pathway to the conventional approaches for accreditation. The WTEA method adds the plank of employability to the rest of the conventional planks. Given that the vast majority of students who attend postsecondary education do so in order to qualify for high-value employment, this new emphasis within accreditation is long overdue. Indeed, the quality of post-graduate employment is further de facto evidence of the quality of a college credential.

Q: I remember when TSTC took the plunge on performance funding, you all were careful to stress that this probably wasn’t for most institutions. Has that changed? It obviously feels like higher ed is more focused on completion—and career outcomes, to some extent.

A: Clearly, organizational behavior can be strongly influenced by the way in which the firm earns its significant streams of revenue. After all, revenue is a means of survival and of prosperity for any institution. So, this behavior is hard-wired into those who endure in a competitive market. 

For that reason, outcomes-based funding has a major impact on the culture and ethos of a college. The organization will instinctively align with the flow of capital or its fortunes will eventually decline. That means that outcomes-based funding must align perfectly with the overall mission of an institution or the funding method will distort the organization from a form that optimizes mission achievement.

It has become increasingly common to hear calls for higher ed to show a stronger alignment with the workplace. So, it follows that results-based public funding is likely to grow, too.

Q: What are the primary barriers you see to WTEA or other forms of quality assurance on careers getting broad uptake? Can they be overcome?

A: The historical practices in higher education are time-honored and have endured for decades. Moreover, academe is proud of its traditions and its consistency. Radical innovation is not a common practice in higher education. This conventional approach has endured despite the growing clamor for better alignment between education and the workplace. 

What I’m saying is that many in the higher ed sector are struggling to respond to the customers’ demand for an increased correlation between their studies and the skills demands of meaningful employment. 

Eventually, through one means or another, this mismatch between service provider and customer—between the college and the student—will resolve itself. In some scenarios, that resolution will produce winners and losers. However, if WTEA can be successful in bringing a new accreditation approach, then that mismatch will resolve in a manner that benefits both the student and the institution. In other words, I see the WTEA approach as the best chance for many in higher ed to find the win-win future that’s still possible for many.

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