By Andrew Smalley
The value of non-degree credentials and the broader challenges facing today’s students were the focus during the 16th annual NCSL Legislative Institute on Higher Education, which drew 26 legislators and two staffers to Park City, Utah, earlier this month.
Keynote speaker Viviana Abreu-Hernandez, associate vice president for external affairs at Quinsigamond Community College, started the conference by focusing on some of the obstacles in the higher education system.
“Higher education is not serving the population of students who are graduating from high school today,” Abreu-Hernandez said. “The emerging majority of students cannot go to school full time and that is a problem because higher education has been built for full-time students.”
An increasing number of today’s students attend school part time or work while in school. Additionally, many adult learners are returning to postsecondary education at older ages.
“If you have been out of school for 10 years, navigating college is hard., Tisha Lee, director of Student Services at Emily Griffith Technical College, said.
In order to address these challenges, states and institutions have been increasing student supports for concerns including student hunger, housing insecurity and the cost of child care.
“We have a food pantry that was founded by our foundation,” Lee said. “If you’re hungry, how are you going to be successful in school? You’re not.”
There needs to be an honest discussion around child care and access to public benefits, according to Amy Ellen Duke-Benfield, senior fellow at the National Skills Coalition.
"As the demographics change, we are seeing a lot of students who are insecure when it comes to housing and hunger,” she said. “It’s also important to underscore the importance of career counseling, that's where the rubber hits the road, so students know what options will lead to jobs.”
Discussions around boosting credential attainment also focused on targeting students in diverse demographic groups.
“We can’t just focus on traditional-age students. The high school population is going to be declining,” said Paola Santana, strategy officer for state policy with the Lumina Foundation. “We really need to focus on getting first credentials in the hands of adults.”
Legislators reviewed the Stronger Nation Report from the Lumina Foundation, which includes detailed state-level credential attainment data.
“These are not just attainment goals. They are visions for your entire state,” said Andrew Rauch, senior associate with HCM Strategists. “It is easy to identify a goal, but it’s harder to engage stakeholders. In order to get to those goals, it is about breaking down silos.”
Speakers also focused on ensuring credentials are high quality and lead to positive education and workforce outcomes.
“Non-degree credentials are rapidly growing, but sometimes hard to measure,” said Duke-Benfield. “States need to have criteria about these credentials to make better policy and budget decisions.”
Stackable credentials, which are becoming increasingly important for adult learners, also received attention from legislators and speakers.
“High-quality credentials lead to further employment or further education,” said Amber Garrison Duncan, strategy director at the Lumina Foundation. “We want to make sure that credential is not a dead end.”
As non-degree credentials become more common, legislators can play an important role in developing and evaluating these programs.
“If you take one thing away from this conference, I want you to reprogram yourself so that when someone from your Department of Higher Education comes to talk you, you are talking with them about credentials and other non-degree programs,” said Katie Zaback, senior policy director with the Colorado Department of Higher Education.
“One of the most powerful things you can do is ask questions,” Rauch added. “Having the conversations and putting the questions out there shows that this is something people are thinking about.”
Andrew Smalley is a research analyst in NCSL’s Education Program.