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

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


Wally BostonIt’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.



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 July 2016, he retired as APUS president and continued as CEO of APEI. In September 2017, he was reappointed APUS president after the resignation of Dr. Karan Powell. In September 2019, Angela Selden was named CEO of APEI, succeeding Dr. Boston who will remain APUS president until his planned retirement in June 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. During his tenure, APUS grew to over 100,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 90,000 alumni. In addition to his service as a board member of APUS and APEI, Dr. Boston is 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, a board member of the Presidents’ Forum, and a board member of Hondros College of Nursing and Fidelis, Inc. 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. Dr. Boston lives in Owings Mills, MD with his wife Sharon and their two daughters.


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