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From: Goldie Blumenstyk
Subject: The Edge: New Credentials Fall Short of Vision
I’m Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer at The Chronicle covering innovation in and around higher ed. This week I report on the fate of educational credentials I once thought would be the cat’s pajamas.
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I’m Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer at The Chronicle covering innovation in and around higher ed. This week I report back on a the fate of new educational credentials I once thought would be the cat’s pajamas.
Promising tech credentials’ missed opportunities.
Of all the education credentials I’ve reported on — alternative, stackable, industry-certified, whatever — the ones that really captured my fancy were the digital-tech credentials developed by the Capital CoLAB (Collaborative of Leaders in Academia and Business).
So much about the creation of these credentials — three for specialized expertise and one for general tech knowledge — seemed spot on. Not only did they promise tangible value to students who earned them, they were also the culmination of some unusual cooperation that reflected both employers’ needs and universities’ autonomy. The Capital CoLAB is made up of a diverse set of universities and employers from a corridor stretching from Baltimore, Md., to Richmond, Va.
Three years on, however, it turns out that only 455 students have earned the generalist certificate, and an additional 103 have earned a specialist one, according to the Greater Washington Partnership, which sponsors the program. Maybe those stats don’t capture everyone. But considering the tens of thousands of students who attend the 19 institutions participating in the program, that doesn’t seem like a whole lot to me.
Partnership officials said they couldn’t tell me how many CoLAB students got internships with the collaborative’s 20 employer partners, and that it was too early in the life of the program to know how many students got interviews or jobs because of the credential.
I found all of this especially disappointing because I loved the idea of a credential that could give students from non-STEM majors a way to add some real tech cred to their résumés, particularly in a region where employers in all sorts of fields say they are desperate to hire people with those skills. And I hoped the collaborative program would become a national model for other regions and for other in-demand fields.
I’d like to think some of that is still possible.
Over the past couple of months, I’ve talked to several officials with connections to the program — at universities and at the Greater Washington Partnership — to try to understand why it’s faltered.
And I’m not the only one wondering what’s happened.
The Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area has been raising some red flags, with several presidents questioning if the program is paying off for their students. The credentials are a good idea, Darryl Pines, president of the University of Maryland at College Park, shared with me in an email. But, he said, “I do not think that students are fully aware of them, because key employers have not sought these skills/credentials out for making employment decisions in the region.”
Some of the fault lines are specific to this project and to the times. Others are universal and worth highlighting as a caution for anyone pursuing collaborations of this sort.
Let’s start with the specific ones. The onset of Covid, one year into the life of the project, certainly didn’t help; it got harder for employers to offer internships and mentoring sessions to CoLAB participants, undermining one of the big draws of the program. Pandemic concerns distracted some university leaders from promoting the program, as well.
Staff turnover at the partnership over the past three years also derailed a lot of the momentum, although in recent months, several officials there have stated their intentions of getting the program back on track. For example, one of its top priorities for the 2022-23 academic year is to improve its data-collection processes so it can keep better track of how many students pursuing CoLAB certificates are landing internships or jobs with participating employers. In the summer of 2021 the project began offering $2,500 scholarships to female and minority students historically underrepresented in tech fields, with about $180,000 awarded so far to CoLAB participants. And it’s brought in the McKinsey & Company consulting firm to “provide strategic direction on how we can meet CoLAB’s goals,” according to a note sent to university leaders.
On the universal level, many of the problems centered on follow-through. Pines was not the only campus official I heard from who contends that area employers haven’t embraced the credentials. That suggests that early enthusiasm expressed by chief executives, and by the HR managers who did the nuts-and-bolts work to figure out what skills and abilities would be part of the certificates, wasn’t sustained or communicated through the ranks. Such a disconnect isn’t unusual. As Patricia Maguire, president of Trinity Washington University, noted: “The difference between the vision and the execution is usually where things fall apart.”
In collaborations like this, that’s where the sponsoring intermediaries are supposed to step in. But as one university official told me, “It seemed to be difficult for the CoLAB to continue to bring the silos together.”
CoLAB did create a website to promote student-employer engagement, but program officials acknowledged to me that “uptake was low.”
Several of the college folks I spoke with said their own institutions also lost enthusiasm. For some, it was because they came to believe that encouraging students to pursue a specialist certificate was a waste of time because the universities’ own majors or minors in fields like cybersecurity and data analytics were more valuable and better known to potential employers. Was the initial idea for specialist certificates off base? That’s for others — or the market — to determine, but clearly, with projects like this, it’s important to reconsider and reconfigure initial ideas based on experience.
Elsewhere, university leaders just weren’t committed enough to promote the programs internally, some told me. That may be because employers didn’t value the certificates more highly (see above). If so, that’s really too bad. As one college official noted to me, if the certificates did have currency, they could be helpful to students even before they graduate, landing them better jobs as they’re working their way through college. Innovations that can pay off for working students don’t come along that often, so it would be nice to realize that potential.
Despite their problems, I still hold out hope for the success of the CoLAB certificates, and am eager to hear what comes from a meeting of the project’s University Leadership Council next week and from a gathering of CEOs, university presidents, and others at the CoLAB-principals meeting on October 11.
CoLAB still has a lot to its credit. Many of the college officials I spoke with said the process of developing the credentials four years ago helped them improve their own technology offerings, and, as was the case with Trinity, even prompted them to develop new interdisciplinary minors.
Trinity, which enrolls a high proportion of low-income, Black, and Hispanic women, wasn’t an initial CoLAB member, but Maguire told me she wanted in on it because if there was a program that could open more doors to good jobs, “my students need to be at that table.” Now, the challenge is for CoLAB itself to show that it’s worthy of such faith.
The emailed version of last week’s newsletter gave the wrong figure for the number of American Talent Initiative colleges that had increased their enrollment of low-income students in 2018-19. It should have said that 68 of the 120 colleges that were then part of ATI reported an annual increase (or stability) in those enrollments. It also mischaracterized one of the top-10 lists highlighting colleges’ successes provided in the latest ATI progress report. That list, headed by Colby College, was for institutions showing the largest percentage increase in Pell Grant enrollments.
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