Finding the Middle Ground: What Higher Ed Can Do to Appeal to As Many Learners As Possible

Higher ed institutions need to develop programs that not only make it viable for people from every socioeconomic demographic to attend, but thrive. How do we ensure that just because someone isn’t heading across state lines to a four-year university, they can have the same quality education as their former high school classmates. 

Emphasis on experiential learning and networking can help provide a top-quality education, without having to pay thousands in tuition.  

EvoLLLution Editor-in-Chief and Illumination host Amrit Ahluwalia chats with Luke Dowden, the Chief Online Learning Officer and Associate Vice Chancellor at Alamo Colleges District, at the IMS Global Credentials Summit in Georgia.  

The pair discuss microcredentials within community colleges programs and how learner expectations have evolved within the last two years.  

Mike Flores, the Chancellor of the Alamo Colleges District, says that talent is equally distributed, but opportunity is not. Dowden says this is core to the vision that ACD has when developing its approach to students.  

Dowden had this idea instilled in him as a youth, as he grew up in a lower income household.  

“There is more access, and more opportunities, as you ascend the financial ladder,” Dowden says.  

Keeping this understanding of people’s socioeconomic status in mind when developing community college programming is crucial to student success, and Dowden also calls it central to the ACD’s mission. The need for the four-year degrees is not nearly as high as fast, digestible programs that can build someone’s skillset and resume.  

Microcredentials are the alternative that provides that flexibility, and often pathways to universities or colleges, that so many prospective students are looking for.  

“The guided pathways work,” Dowden says. “We have an entire team that negotiates credit agreements to minimize loss of credits. We have to celebrate that.” 

ACD has a number of pathways partnerships that are designed to move students through the community college system and then onto areas like arts, business, health and manufacturing.  

Some of today’s largest companies—like Dell, Google and Amazon—have programs with ACD.  

Dowden says there is a significant number of people who are finishing these programs with tech giants without other credentials, meaning the first credential they’ve earned in their higher ed career could say Google on it.  

These microcredentials could instill a desire for lifelong learning that then drives the student to enroll in more stackable credential programs. But the community college must be a part of the student’s desire to continue in higher ed after graduating from whichever institution they move to next.  

“Microcredentials, as a term, represent stickability like never before,” Dowden says. “It’s the promise of being committed to breaking down these walls or traversing them in a different way. Within our own walls, we’re working on a credit for learning ecosystem.” 

The disparity between employees with only a high school degree and those with college education continues to grow, Dowden says, but ACD is hoping to find the middle ground and bridge that gap.  

Dowden says workers with bachelor’s degrees are making more over their lifetimes than they were even just a decade ago. Although, salaries in the United States as a whole have increased at a steady pace for the last 50 or so years, according to Trading Economics. The average dollar per hour wage in the United States has increased from about $20 in 2012 to $27 in 2022. 

It’s also important to consider inflation and cost of living, both of which have also increased.  

Of course, there are variable—such as the types of degree that a person holds. The liberal arts, for example, is an aera that Dowden suggests could benefit a lot from appending microcredentails.  

The introduction of these stackable credentials to already defined programs is changing the way that students are accessing information. The delivery methods are changing—and with them, student expectations.  

Dowden and ACD has the data on what sort of students are taking which classes, so how do they—and other institutions—use that data to develop programs that students want? By going to where the learners are, first of all, and offering more accessible programing.  

Alamo County District ran a pilot program in the summer of 2021 for microcredentials. The overwhelming majority of attendees were not signed up for any of ACD’s online programs.  

This is far from what Dowden expected, as ACD currently has the highest number of online registered learners in the school’s history.  

“It was the most perplexed I’ve ever been, working in online learning,” Dowden says. “And I’ve been in the industry for more than a decade.” 

The needs for not only accessible learning, but lifelong learning, go hand in hand. Developing smaller programs that are not meant to take four years, but four months, means that more people from more socioeconomic background will be able to enroll, and enrich their lives.  

Education has had to evolve in the last two years to meet both learners demands and the world’s demands. It was demanded of us to move online for safety reason and students demanded that same top- notch education be delivered to their homes virtually. 

As demands change, so, too, must deliveries. Embracing microcredentials, online learning, and online microcredentials will open that accessibility up to more people, and build a stronger community for the colleges that offer it.  

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Last updated: March 11, 2022


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