I’m Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education, covering innovation in and around academe. Subscribe here. Here’s what I’m thinking about this week:

Will a “certificate-first” strategy pay dividends?

It’s not surprising that a top education official for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would evangelize. But Clark Gilbert’s latest cause has nothing to do with religion.

Gilbert is president of BYU-Pathway Worldwide, the online program that was born last year out of Brigham Young University-Idaho, and he’s on a mission to get more colleges to recognize or even adopt a curricular model pioneered there. It’s a model that sounds to me like “stackable credentials” on steroids. Gilbert calls it “certificate first.”

The approach has intrigued me since I wrote about the PathwayConnect program two summers ago. Back then, the idea of having students earn a job-related credential as the first step in their college experience struck me as a clever retention strategy for the adult population that BYU-Idaho was serving through the program.

It seemed especially well-suited to women who were starting or returning to college after years at home raising their families, or for men who might be skeptical about this whole college thing that their church was encouraging them to pursue. It gave students a chance to earn a worthwhile credential early in their educational journey.

This past year, Pathway adopted “certificate first” as its standard operating procedure, with about two dozen 15-credit certificates on offer. Its philosophy: General education can wait.

Gilbert says the results have been striking. “It turns out that starting with a certificate in the first year is a big deal for at-risk students,” he told me. The persistence rate for students who had earned a certificate was 85 percent, compared with 65 percent for those who hadn’t.

BYU-Idaho’s 40,000-plus online students, including those in PathwayConnect, are by most definitions, at risk: Seventy percent, it estimates, are first-generation college students, low-income students, or both. Most of them work, and about half have tried college before but didn’t complete.

For these students, Gilbert says, advising and scholarships have their place as retention strategies, but neither is “nearly as powerful as curriculum design.” Colleges need to be deliberate, he says: “It doesn’t mean you cut up a bachelor’s degree into 15-credit chunks.”

In other words, the first credential needs to be designed so that it is both useful on its own and as a solid building block in a stackable credential that really stacks up.

Now that Gilbert has seen the effectiveness of the curricular shift, he believes that “it’s ethically irresponsible not to start with a certificate-first program.” And not just at BYU-Idaho.

He’s begun meeting with officials at other colleges and state higher-education systems, hoping to persuade other institutions that serve similarly at-risk populations to consider adopting the strategy. He also wants other colleges to award credit for and stack the Pathway certificates into the degrees they offer, should the students decide to transfer.

To buttress the case for change, Gilbert draws on statistics that I return to often in discussions of inequities in higher education: data from the Pell Institute showing that only about 11 percent of the lowest-income adults earn bachelor’s degrees by age 24, compared with 58 percent of the highest-income quartile. “I don’t know how the academy walks away from that data point,” Gilbert says.

Me neither.

Still, it might be too soon to declare this strategy the be all and end all. I’ve heard of the approach’s being effective in other places. Maricopa Community College, in Arizona, has long seen students enrolling for full degrees after completing a company-sponsored certificate there. But I suspect that a few more semesters of data might be helpful to Gilbert’s cause. What do you think? Has a strategy like this worked for your college? Are there pitfalls to putting off general education until later? Let me know. I’ll share responses in a future newsletter.

Quote of the week.

“Education credentials — typically degrees — retain a central and even growing role in the hiring equation. Yet as more employers evolve their hiring practices through the application of technology and skills-based hiring practices, the emphasis on degrees is likely to be challenged.”

From a report by Sean R. Gallagher, executive director of the Center for the Future of HIgher Education & Talent Strategy, at Northeastern University, analyzing employers’ attitudes toward traditional and alternative credentials.