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Transitions – A More Inclusive Way to Look at Transfer

July 08, 2022

By Jennifer Zeisler, Senior Program Director, Career Readiness

The higher education field talks a lot about transfer: the commonly understood move students make from one institution to another in pursuit of a bachelor’s degree. This notion denotes a clean, linear process. But it’s not always aligned with the contemporary reality of student mobility. Due to high stop-out rates, many of today’s students will attend multiple institutions after high school, start and stop their education at least once, and collect a virtual suitcase of skills and credentials across education providers, on-the-job training and self-taught learning.

Whereas a term like transitions, uplifted by Education Commission of the States and Sova, might be more inclusive of today’s students, especially those enrolled in postsecondary career and technical education (CTE) programs which often incorporate stackable credentials — a sequence of credentials that can be accumulated over time to help individuals learn skills, add qualifications, increase wages and move along a career pathway. 

As many employers encounter the impact of a shallow talent pool and many un- and underemployed adults seek support to reskill or upskill, now is the time to ensure the thoughtful articulation of career pathways. Career pathways is an approach by which postsecondary institutions, community-based organizations, employers and learners/workers come together in an organized fashion and focus on the holistic needs of both learners/workers and employers. Community-based organizations often serve as the intermediary for this collective impact model, enabling all stakeholders to have a voice in the career pathways implementation and providing learners/workers wraparound supports to help them move along the education-to-employment continuum.

By caring about the supportive services, ensuring that there are multiple entry points to both education and employment, and recognizing multiple milestones (or stackable credentials) that build on one another, intermediaries ensure learners/workers have the ability to develop their skills (and credentials) while advancing their careers. In fact, institutions are incentivized now more than ever to develop these pathways in an effort to decrease student debt, increase student enrollments and improve equitable outcomes.

It’s not surprising that short-term training programs and non-credit coursework are among the many appeals community colleges hold for new traditional students, many of whom are people of color or from low-income households. While these programs are valuable for preparing and credentialing skilled workers, they don’t always align or sync up with for-credit degree programs — a misalignment that can cost students time and money.

That’s where ECMC Foundation’s theory of change around CTE comes in. It posits that if students complete accredited postsecondary programs and earn academic credentials, they will experience improved economic stability and social mobility. Among the key assumptions underpinning a successful approach, postsecondary CTE programs should incorporate learner-centered approaches and integrate industry-informed pathways.

Those who are over age 25, holding down jobs and caring for dependents should have the opportunity to apply on-the-job experience, non-credit coursework and other knowledge bases to their chosen programs of study. Without that ability, it remains far too easy for a committed student’s education to get disrupted by factors beyond their control. Too many students thus end up stuck, unable to further explore postsecondary pathways to their desired careers. They’re required to repeat or relearn subjects they already know because previous job experience, alternate coursework and credit types, and “unstackable” credentials aren’t accepted. These systems limit students’ abilities to attain their desired credentials and stunt career growth, future earnings and economic mobility.

When we have conversations about transfer or transitions, we must include the experiences of students in CTE programs, including those which are short-term and noncredit programs — and adapt policies that set them up for success, with stackable and more easily transferable credentials. That’s why ECMC Foundation and its partners are working to ensure today’s students — who have different strengths and often more limited resources — can efficiently and successfully navigate their desired higher education pathways. ECMC Foundation has also funded several promising projects to bridge credit and noncredit programs more effectively.

Mi Casa Resource Center (MCRC)

Through the Career Pathways program, MCRC helps jobseekers develop a customized plan to secure the education needed for their chosen field. Further, the program provides services during the participants’ job search and even after employment. MCRC received funding from ECMC Foundation to streamline the assessment, registration and enrollment processes for their Financial Services Pathway program and put 250 adult learners in Colorado on a path to secure meaningful employment in the financial services industry and earn postsecondary credentials. Participants in the program joined a five-week training module focused on enhancing career-ready skills for all aspects of the hiring experience, from cash handling and bank security to interviewing and resume writing. As job and career opportunities become more available, the pathway ensures higher levels of student completion and successful employment in the financial services industry.

Virginia Foundation for Community College Education’s FastForward

The FastForward pilot, Career Laddering in Allied Healthcare Fields, engaged allied health academic and workforce faculty, leadership, advising and marketing staff at six Virginia community colleges and at the system level to establish more direct credentialing pathways. In practice, that included better aligning short-term credential programs, like those for certified medical assistants, with associate degree programs in high-demand healthcare fields. Each participating institution developed a collaborative approach to program design and advising that can be scaled to other colleges and other disciplines. They also explored how to offer clearer, more equitable and more lucrative career pathways for all in allied healthcare fields, which disproportionately employ women, people of color and parents.

Center for Occupational Research and Development (CORD)

CORD’s Advancing Credentials through Career Pathways initiative advocates an environment in which actively engaged employers work in co-leadership roles with educators to design career pathways comprising industry-validated stackable credentials. With ECMC Foundation funding, CORD provided technical assistance to a cohort of 15 community colleges on strategies to significantly enhance employer engagement, expand pathways for stackable credentials, and create policies that support non-credit/credit integration. The project also built a peer-learning network to support cross-cohort collaboration. With additional ECMC Foundation support, CORD published “Studying the Motivation, Perceived Benefits, and Return on Investment of Employer Engagement in Career Pathways Programs,” a report highlighting employer engagement practices for community colleges’ career-technical programs.

These programs and others continue making great strides in every corner of the country, but more work is needed to better align non-credit and credit programs and provide students with opportunities to attain stackable credentials. We remain committed to helping the field better understand the current landscape and transform both the commonly understood transfer process as well as other kinds of postsecondary transitions. At the end of the day, we’ll have succeeded when every student — especially new traditional learners — can fluidly and seamlessly navigate a higher education ecosystem rooted in the understanding that valid learning experiences can stem from a variety of sources.


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