Piloting a New Credentialing Model

By Dennis Pierce

A look at how one community college is changing its credential programs through participation in the Right Signals initiative.

As a senior policy fellow for the Corporation for a Skilled Workforce, Keith Bird spent years working on a new model for credentialing that makes it easy for employers and other stakeholders to know what skills and competencies students have mastered.

Now, as president of Kentucky’s Gateway Community and Technical College, one of 20 community colleges chosen to participate in a new credentialing initiative called Right Signals, Bird will implement such a model.

“We need a system of credentialing in the United States like they have in Europe,” Bird says. “We have a system that consists largely of credit hours, but we need to move from inputs to performance-based measures, so we can better communicate what students know and how they can prove it.”

Over the past 30 years, the number of industry certificates colleges and universities have awarded has surged more than 800 percent, according to the Lumina Foundation. At the same time, new forms of credentials — such as badges — also have emerged. This disparate landscape makes it hard for students and employers to understand what various credentials mean, how they’re related and whether they are high quality.

To address this challenge, the Lumina Foundation has teamed up with the American Association of Community Colleges on the Right Signals initiative, which aims to help develop a more interconnected, transparent system for certifying knowledge and skills within the United States.

How Gateway is changing its credential offerings

At Gateway, Bird and his staff have begun to develop stackable, competency-based credentials that align with industry needs. For instance, a new modular, open-ended program called the Enhanced Operator Program is a 16-week manufacturing certification program provided in a flexible format that considers students’ work schedules. Seventy percent of the course is delivered online, and 30 percent is done in in-person, hands-on labs.

Students can move at their own pace as they satisfy the program’s competencies. They can also “test out” of modules if they have the knowledge and experience to do so.

Upon completion of the program, students earn an Enhanced Operator Certificate, which is a locally recognized industry certificate equivalent to 14 hours of college credit. They’re guaranteed an interview with a local employer, or they can continue working toward an associate of applied science degree.

Through its participation in the Right Signals program, Gateway will continue to redesign its curriculum using the Enhanced Operator Program as a model. The goal is to develop a “dynamic way to reach all populations … and a way for people to get credentialed in a manner that industry recognizes,” Bird says. The college will also work to align its curriculum with the Connecting Credentials Framework, developed by Lumina and the Corporation for a Skilled Workforce.

“The bottom line is to ensure for our employees, students and faculty that our programs are aligned with what careers require, so we’re getting the right skills to the right people at the right time,” Bird says. “That’s the ultimate goal of what we’re trying to do.”

Dennis Pierce

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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