Center for American Progress

RELEASE: CAP Proposes Reforms to Improve Outcomes, Efficiency of U.S. Postsecondary Education System
Press Release

RELEASE: CAP Proposes Reforms to Improve Outcomes, Efficiency of U.S. Postsecondary Education System

Read the report.

Washington, D.C. — A new report released today by the Center for American Progress outlines promising reforms that seek to improve and strengthen the connection between higher-education systems and employers, and urges an “all-of-the-above” approach to boost program completion, reduce educational costs, and improve the overall quality of the nation’s postsecondary education system.

Higher education in the United States is slow to change, and among the policies most deeply stuck in the past is accreditation—the process by which higher-education institutions are deemed to be of sufficient quality to gain public trust and have their degrees valued. However, despite the long reliance in the United States on accreditation as the mechanism for assuring quality in higher education, accreditation is poorly aligned with the nation’s workforce needs. By strengthening connections between higher education and employers within the current accreditation system, policymakers can enhance the value, affordability, and student outcomes of our higher-education system.

“The traditional approach to higher education can be highly limiting to students, as they are expected to fit their learning within the context of preset credit hours and academic calendars,” said David A. Bergeron, Vice President for Postsecondary Education at the Center for American Progress. “However, by making learning student-centric and providing program flexibility, students can flourish within an academic setting that rewards demonstrated competencies and allows students to build off of prior learning.”

As highlighted in Bergeron’s report, recent developments in postsecondary education hold significant promise for improving the nation’s higher education system, including guided pathways, stackable credentials, and competency-based learning. The first of these developments, Guided Pathways to Success, or GPS, takes student through postsecondary education to a career by creating tightly structured semesters and systems to identify those students who are falling behind so that advisors can intervene in a timely, effective matter.

Under a competency-based model, students are assessed on their application of knowledge and awarded credentials based on their demonstrated expertise and skills, which is reflected in a competency-based transcript. These transcripts can then be used to inform employers with information regarding a graduate’s practical skills and abilities that will contribute to the economic productivity of the workplace. Competency-based learning allows institutions of higher education to move beyond the constraints of rigid credit hour measurements, instead providing alternative modes of educational delivery that can reduce the time and cost of attaining a degree.

Additionally, the report also recommends the implementation of stackable credentials, which are certificates, degrees, or other formal education awards that serve as one of a sequence of credentials. For instance, stackable credentials could be awarded to a nursing assistant seeking to advance his or her career by becoming a registered nurse. Under the current system of accreditation, however, that student would likely be forced to repeat portions of his or her training, which is both a financial and time barrier for many working adults.

Although guided pathways, stackable credentials, and competency-based learning have been embraced by higher-education institutions, these innovations are viewed separately and the pace of change has been much too slow. As a result, the Center for American Progress recommends the following to foster positive and transformative change:

  • The secretary of education should  use his waiver authority to encourage reforms such as GPS, stackable credentials, and competency-based programs.
  • Establish early-on quality measures and objective standards of effectiveness to ensure new methods of delivering education provide positive educational delivery.
  • Engage employers in the process of defining educational program results to ensure greater alignment between postsecondary education and the workplace.

Read the report: A Path Forward: Game-Changing Reforms in Higher Education and the Implications for Businesses and Financing Models, by David A. Bergeron

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For more information or to speak to an expert on this topic, contact Katie Peters at [email protected] or 202.741.6285.