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Higher Ed: A Day of Reckoning or Is It Business as Usual?

Higher Ed: A Day of Reckoning or Is It Business as Usual?


Perhaps it was Rebecca Natow’s article in The Chronicle of Higher Education titled “Why Haven’t More Colleges Closed?”. Maybe it was Allison Salisbury’s article in Forbes titled “Building Equitable Upskilling Programs: It’s Not Degree Vs. Short Credentials – It’s Both.”

Also, it could be the hundreds — if not thousands — of articles and books about the pending changes in higher ed that have been written and published over the past two decades. Clearly, the most recent two articles cited triggered my motivation to pen this article.

In her March 1 article published in The Chronicle, Ms. Natow opens with a summary of the financial disruption for all colleges due to the pandemic. The cost of education technology utilized to shift classes online, the retrofit of campuses to comply with public health guidance, extra campus cleanings, COVID-19 testing, housing refunds, and enrollment declines were mentioned as some of the most obvious impacts of COVID-19 on higher education. She writes that estimates of the higher ed sector’s losses are as high as $183 billion.

Highlighting a few notable predictions of closures and consolidations from higher ed experts Robert Zemsky, Robert Kelchen, William R. Doyle, Richard Vedder, and John Kroger, Ms. Natow notes that their recent forecasts ranged from 200 college closures to 1,000 closures. She writes that only 10 permanent closures or consolidations have been announced since the beginning of March 2020 and the end of January 2021. Those 10 were small colleges that were in financial trouble prior to COVID-19.

Why have there been so few closures, asks Ms. Natow? She answers that first, it’s still early. Closures and mergers take years to plan and implement. Second, the federal stimulus may have provided enough cash to prop up some of the weaker colleges. Third, people have predicted the demise of colleges for years, and the evidence is that the sector is fairly resilient.

Providing a number of examples of how colleges survived crises from the Great Depression in the 1930s to economic setbacks in the 1970s, Ms. Natow writes that many traditional institutions will adapt to the post-COVID new normal by instituting new policies or programs and eliminating others. She cites the elimination of 11 athletic teams by Stanford University, the closure of three academic departments by the University of Vermont, and the addition of a new program in cybersecurity by the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. More cost-savings changes are likely to come until educational institutions’ leaders have clarity about the market demand for higher education.

Ms. Natow writes that we’re “witnessing an enormous, slow-motion change: The academy is becoming a more frugal employer, a more virtual entity, and less of a home to the traditional liberal arts – again, extending trends that were already present before the arrival of Covid.” She concludes that the vast majority of colleges will survive the current crisis.

On the same day that Ms. Natow’s article was published, Allison Salisbury’s article was published in Forbes. Ms. Salisbury writes that employers are reconsidering whether degree requirements are necessary for many job roles. According to her, companies are reevaluating whether their education benefits and upskilling programs should continue to include degrees or should focus solely on shorter-term, skills-based credentials.

Ms. Salisbury notes that both pathways — degrees and shorter-term credentials — must co-exist together. Employees should not have to choose between credentials that prepare them for promotion in six months or a career change in six years. Furthermore, these options can’t stand on their own.

Employer degree requirements for positions are limiting because the requirements lock employees into costly and time-consuming pathways, according to Ms. Salisbury. Short-term credentials alone are limiting because they do not provide the upwardly mobile options of a bachelor’s degree.

Stackable credentials are the solution to providing a pathway for both options. Stackable credentials allow workers to build a clear pathway from short term credentials to a bachelor’s degree over time.

Stackable credentials have yet to take off, however. Ms. Salisbury writes that higher education institutions have been somewhat recalcitrant in their development and rollout of such credentials.

Similarly, employers have yet to embrace stackable credentials. This reluctance is partially due to the need to tightly tie the short-term credentials to employers’ skill needs as well as to the logical progression of careers. In the field with the most success — healthcare — employers and institutions have worked together, probably because of the shortage of qualified healthcare workers in the U.S.

Ms. Salisbury writes that the moment is ripe to expand this approach as “employers look for ways to improve the career mobility of women, Black, and Latinx workers in low-paying jobs.” The stackable approach reaches people in their workplace, lowers barriers to entry for students, and reduces the student acquisition cost for institutions.

Students receive greater clarity regarding outcomes for credential and degree completion. Stackable credentials should significantly reduce wasted effort and time taking courses that do not complement a worker’s short-term or long-term career goals.

I chose to write about these two articles, because they provide contrasting examples and evidence of the current higher ed environment. Ms. Natow writes that we’re observing an enormous, slow-motion change of higher education. She believes that expenses will adjust to the current environment and that more colleges will survive than predicted as long as they adjust their expenses to the projected market demand.

Ms. Salisbury says that employers are frustrated with the limitations of potential employee availability if positions require applicants to hold degrees instead of skill-based credentials. She states that short-term credentials are an alternative that provides greater availability of qualified employees but without a stackable approach to a degree, those credentials do not provide motivated employees with the associate degree and bachelor’s degree credentials that make their career more mobile.

The reason we have seen an upswing in entities, not institutions, offering short-term credentials is that institutions have been slow to respond to employer needs. It’s hard not to recognize the substantial impact of technology on changes in our businesses over the past three decades. While colleges and universities are clearly businesses (despite the ill-informed claims of those who argue that a non-profit status indicates they are different from businesses), those classified as educating traditional students have been slower to change.

Community colleges and many for-profit colleges have offered short-term credentials to working adults for many years. As Ms. Salisbury notes, stackable credentials have been implemented in the healthcare area, but have not been adopted widely in other industry sectors.

It’s important to note that community colleges and for-profit colleges serve primarily non-traditional students. Higher ed institutions serving primarily traditional students have been slow to develop and implement non-degree certificates and even slower to consider stacking those credentials in a degree.

The development and expansion of the community college sector became widespread in the 1960s and 1970s. Despite more than five decades of co-existence, there are not always seamless paths for students with associate degrees from community colleges to transfer to four-year institutions.

That can be and should be fixed, but it takes a solid partnership between two-year and four-year institutions to make it work. Most two-year institutions usually limit their four-year partners to those located nearby or in the same state.

If the evidence indicates that the path to transfer from a two-year institution to a four-year institution is not always seamless, I question the ability and desire of four-year institutions to implement a series of stackable credentials leading to the completion of a bachelor’s degree.

As Ms. Natow notes, the forecasts that hundreds of colleges will close post-pandemic have been wrong so far. As a reporter covering higher ed, she believes that many colleges will successfully adopt to the market and the closures or consolidations will be smaller than predicted.

If the future of higher education demands a tightly knit coordination between employers and colleges for the development of stackable credentials as recommended by Ms. Salisbury, the odds are high that many colleges and universities will be slow to respond.

I believe that it’s likely and probable that community colleges and for-profit colleges will be among the first to adopt stackable credentials. I am familiar with one of the most commonly utilized stacked credential pathways in healthcare, which is a certificate in nursing (qualifying a student to take the licensed practical nurse (LPN) exam), stackable to an associate degree in nursing (qualifying a student to take the registered nurse (RN) exam), stackable to a bachelor’s of science (BSN) degree in nursing (requiring no additional licensure).

The RN to BSN is a separate degree from a standalone BSN, as it recognizes that the student has already attained licensure as an RN. These credentials are stackable because of standards created by the states for licensure and for staffing in hospitals and other medical facilities.

Hospitals and medical facilities employ licensed staff with specific credentials based on healthcare provider levels that they are licensed for as well as healthcare facility accreditation standards that they choose to affiliate with. Stackable credentials have been able to be created based on the long-standing recognition of credentials, licenses, and degrees by all the parties involved. It will be more difficult to forge pathways in less regulated industries.

In his book, Post Corona: From Crisis to Opportunity, NYU Professor Scott Galloway writes that the Covid pandemic has accelerated the technology impact curve by at least 10 years in certain industries, including higher education. While the number of higher ed institutions adapting to online course delivery has increased substantially, those changes are pedagogical and not curricular.

The stackable credential changes recommended by Ms. Salisbury are curricular changes. Some should be simple; others will be more complex. Many of these curricular changes will be subject to the perspective of specific companies and not necessarily agreed to by all companies in an industry.

Similarly, some of the curricula could be subject to the perspective of faculty at a specific college and not necessarily agreed to by all colleges. It’s my belief that this type of recommended collaboration and adoption will be a slow process. The pace of college stackable credential curriculum development could frustrate employers who may seek partners outside of higher ed.

I have always enjoyed solving problems. Creating stackable credential solutions that are acceptable to thousands of higher ed institutions and tens of thousands of employers will take years, if not decades. In thinking about this issue, I decided to pose a “simpler” problem.

Given that community colleges have been much more active with workforce-related credentials, let’s assume they’ll be more active stacking them into an associate degree. I would like to challenge all four-year institutions to consider:

  1. Creating a seamless transfer path to accept 100 percent of the credits earned from a community college graduate, regardless of their degree concentration
  2. Offering an associate degree to all students at their institution whenever 60 hours of coursework is completed.

While the processes to do this may not be simple, I believe institutions that consider this strategy will be better positioned to be part of the stackable credential pathway called for by Ms. Salisbury and others. If all four-year higher ed institutions accept my challenge, then the time, effort, and expense required to earn a bachelor’s degree would be reduced for everyone who starts their college experience at a community college. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.



Wally Boston Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer in 2002. In September 2019, Dr. Boston retired as CEO of APEI and retired as APUS President in August 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. For four years from 2009 through 2012, APEI was ranked in Forbes' Top 10 list of America's Best Small Public Companies. During his tenure as president, APUS grew to over 85,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 100,000 alumni. While serving as APEI CEO and APUS President, Dr. Boston was a board member of APEI, APUS, Hondros College of Nursing, and Fidelis, Inc. Dr. Boston continues to serve as a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA), a member of the Board of Overseers of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, and as a member of the board of New Horizons Worldwide. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. In August 2020, the Board of Trustees of APUS appointed him Trustee Emeritus. In November 2020, the Board of Trustees announced that the APUS School of Business would be renamed the Dr. Wallace E Boston School of Business in recognition of Dr. Boston's service to the university. Dr. Boston lives with his family in Austin, Texas.


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