3 ways higher ed can make credit transfer work for learners

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Oct 15, 2020

Over the summer, Park University invited learners to transfer in for a year of online courses at a discounted tuition rate, after which learners could “easily” transfer back to their institutions. There’s just one problem: seamless, no-leakage credit transfer is often more of a pipe dream than a dream pipeline, and Park University didn’t have the plumbing figured out. Higher education watchdogs were quick to report the overblown claim to Park University’s accreditor, and the school promptly backtracked.

Lost in the scandal was the sad truth that offers like Park University’s shouldn’t be so impossible. The fact that the concept drew such immediate suspicion is as much an indictment of the traditional higher education business model—which lends itself more to insular fiefdoms than interoperable freeways—as it is of problematic marketing tactics.

As the pandemic stretches on and continues pummeling families’ finances, college-goers will require more flexibility than ever before. They will need extra support to avoid stopping out and getting priced out, and better ways to navigate into and out of higher education programs in case they do need to take a break. Unfortunately, the current, broken credit transfer system could not be more ill-equipped for these needs.

To that end, it’s been encouraging to see innovators address interoperability issues to increase flexibility for learners. In some cases, institutions have leaned into inter-school collaboration. In others, they’ve recognized skills learned at employment-aligned alternative providers or repackaged their credits into employer-recognized credentials. Some go a layer deeper and measure learning in more granular competencies than traditional credits. These various solutions present educators with a range of options for better serving learners.

Mi credit es su credit

Institutions have long formed partnerships through consortial models, leveraging geographic or philosophical proximity to share resources, leadership structures, and/or courses. When an institution feels that a peer is good enough, it’s more likely to interface freely with that peer.

With that in mind, one innovative B2B company, Acadeum, built a course sharing network for colleges to treat each other’s online courses as their own, with learners earning credit and tapping financial aid at their home institutions. The platform emulates global distribution systems—like the technologies that allow airlines to sell tickets on each other’s aircraft or let you split your itinerary among multiple airlines—but for college courses. Acadeum helps institutions evaluate courses, streamlines the approval process for articulation purposes, and centrally handles registration and payments between institutions. Students get an expanded course catalog that opens more pathways to, say, regaining good academic standing or accelerating degree completion. The company reports saving students over $30 million while generating $17 million of revenue for institutions. 

Even for institutions willing to get past the all-too-common “not invented here” syndrome, the traditional, pay-per-credit revenue model often disincentivizes seamless credit transfer. Solutions such as Acadeum can cut through these frictions for traditional institutions looking to collaborate. For schools able to get even more creative with their models, a growing set of institutional innovators is worth checking out.

When transfers aren’t quite so traditional

In these times of economic uncertainty, two-thirds of adults considering enrolling in education prefer non-degree pathways. Institutions that can ease the transition from those pathways into college, or provide their own shortened pathways to ease the transition into the workforce, have an opportunity to meet prospective learners where they are.

For example, this past year both Western Governors University (WGU) and Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) announced articulation agreements with coding bootcamps. Graduates from one bootcamp, Kenzie Academy, can transfer up to 36 credits to WGU in case they decide to pursue a bachelor’s degree or beyond in WGU’s Information Technology school. Thinkful’s bootcamp graduates can likewise transfer up to 18 credits to SNHU. Through these agreements, both universities provide adult learners with expedited degree completion pathways, should they choose to pursue a degree after seeking out timely tech skills.

Alternatively, institutions could take a page out of BYU-Pathway Worldwide’s playbook and ease learners’ “transfer” into the workforce. BYU Pathway helps its learners earn a professional certificate and associate degree on their way to a bachelor’s degree, such that their credits can translate to employer-valued credentials along the way—potentially valuable optionality in an unpredictable time that may require stopping out or pausing studies.

For institutions recognizing that lifelong learners will flow into and out of traditional higher education in a dizzying array of ways, expanding what counts as credit and how credit can count in the workforce makes a world of sense. Alternatively, they could reconsider using credits at all.

Looking beyond credits  

The assumption underpinning most discussions of interoperability in higher education is that credits are the unquestioned currency of the realm. Given that credits often serve less as measures of learning and more as markers of prestige and brand, it may be time to question their primacy. 

Enter competency-based education (CBE). Generally speaking, CBE entails measuring learning based on competencies—what a learner can do, rather than how long he or she spent sitting in a chair. Learners progress at their own pace, only proceeding to new competencies once they’ve mastered the prior ones in a structured learning sequence. WGU is perhaps the highest-profile CBE provider, having designed its entire business model around the concept, though the model is spreading.

Institutions looking ahead to a skills-based future, with individuals taking evidence of their learning with them throughout a lifetime, should salivate at the prospect of CBE—competencies and skills could serve as the new lingua franca for measuring and signaling learning. Unleashing its full potential requires rethinking core components of an institution, and systemically rethinking who should certify learning more broadly in some contexts, but institutions should begin investing in that future now if they aren’t already.

Learners desperately need institutions to fix a credit transfer system that has long derailed life plans and wasted their time and money. Traditional institutions looking to better serve those learners have an expanding playbook from which to draw. If they’re successful, we may yet see a day when Park University’s “easy” credit transfer is a realistic norm rather than a reason for suspicion.

As a research fellow on the Christensen Institute's higher education team, Richard helps investigate novel business models in postsecondary education, professional development, and lifelong learning.