Higher Ed: For Students, the Sum of the Parts May Be Greater than the Whole

It’s common knowledge among those of us researching student retention in online higher education that swirling (attendance by a student at multiple institutions) is much more prevalent with online, than on-ground, programs.  Some of the explanations offered include that it’s easier to switch from one online program to another and there’s less social integration among online students so less social stigma in leaving. Others posit that online students are much more savvy about reviewing courses at multiple institutions to enable them to build a richer collection of courses. Lastly, some note that the more frequent semester starts offered by online institutions makes it more conducive for students switching schools to accommodate their personal and work schedules, and to finish their program sooner.

It’s also well-known that the data collection and reporting systems at the Department of Education are still geared to report progression statistics related to more “traditional” student — 18-22-year-olds who started college full-time after high school — and that minimal data is available to track part-time, older students who “stop in” and “stop out” of their education whenever they need to.  Given the calls for improved college completion rates and for increased partnerships between colleges and universities and employers and ed tech companies, it’s time to call for a task force to study better ways of tracking college attendance patterns and the difference between a “stop out” and a “drop out.”

There are well-defined standards for accredited college degrees, ranging from associates and bachelor’s to master’s and doctoral programs. Certificates are not as well-defined, but must total more than 15 semester hours to be eligible for federal student aid.  Some colleges offer mini-certificates ranging from two to five courses.  Micro- and stackable credentials, along with competency-based degree programs, are the trend du jour and likely to gain traction, assuming employers value them.

Colleges and universities are not the only entities offering micro-credentials and, in some cases, the competition has flooded the market (think coding academies). In some industries like healthcare, employers offer continuing education courses for their employees and badges indicating academic or practical knowledge mastery.  None of the latter offerings are well-defined in the aggregate, although industry associations may be in the process of defining standards for micro-credentials and badges.

The explosion of online micro-credentials, badges, mini-certificates, etc. is unsurprising, given our increasing demand for knowledge whenever we need it.  However, those offerings are likely to decrease enrollments at some more traditional institutions as a college education is broken into multiple parts.  This deconstruction of education will force many institutions to change their business model or go out of business.  Meanwhile, students are finding ways to leverage their course completions, micro-credentials, badges, mini-certificates, and certificates into promotions, career changes, and degrees.  For them, the sum of the parts is clearly greater than the whole.

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