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Higher Education Should be Achievable

Apr 26, 2023

by WGU Policy Team

Students at traditional universities are often held to a cadence of coursework guided by semesters, increasing the time and cost of completion rather than allowing learners to progress at their own pace. This particularly disadvantages working adult learners, for whom time is at a premium. Flexible learning modalities, such as short-term programs and competency-based education (CBE), help working adult learners move through education more rapidly.

Short-Term Learning

The popularity of short-term learning has exploded in the 21st century, with more than 500,000 credentials earned in 2018 alone. Generally, these programs grant credit or noncredit certificates or credentials in less than one year. They can be especially attractive to rising and stranded talent, who may lack the time or financial resources to complete a bachelor’s degree. Stranded talent, who already have college degrees, may seek short-term certification to reskill or upskill without starting a completely new program.

While short-term programs are abundant, program outcomes are mixed. Existing studies find that some short-term programs are more beneficial than others and that some groups of learners earn higher incomes and find greater career success. Suggestions for improving the success rates of short-term programs include engaging local employers in curriculum development, incorporating workforce experience into programs, and prioritizing programs that align with in-demand jobs. Credentials should also be stackable (built into other degree requirements) and portable (recognized at other institutions and in other states). Policymakers need to create pathways that bring educators and employers together to develop programs that have the most potential to improve lives.

Short-term programs are often seen as an affordable alternative to degree-length programs. However, students enrolled in programs less than 15 weeks long are currently ineligible for Pell Grants. This means that Pell funding will not cover tuition or other associated costs, such as tools, transportation, and fees. Policymakers should improve affordability by developing other funding options for short-term funding, such as state funds and privately funded scholarships and grants. States and counties should also reevaluate their guidelines for the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) to ensure that these funds can support all eligible students in programs that lead to resilient career opportunities. Policymakers should also support federal legislation expanding Pell Grant eligibility to include short-term skills and job training.

Competency-Based Education

Competency-based education (CBE) measures skills and learning rather than time spent in a classroom. Working adult learners can progress through courses as soon as they can prove they’ve mastered the material rather than advancing only when the semester or term ends. If a student can learn faster, spend more time on schoolwork, or lean on the knowledge they already have from previous work or school experience, they can accelerate through their courses.

Through this educational model, working adult learners can apply their life and college experiences to benefit them in their postsecondary journey. Policies that acknowledge competencies and knowledge already gained can save learners time and money.

This flexibility of CBE—with floating start and end dates and learners moving at the pace that works for them—makes it particularly advantageous to those balancing education with other priorities. However, that same flexibility means that CBE is frequently misunderstood and disadvantaged by outdated laws and institutional practices that focus on time instead of skills.

For example, increased credit articulation agreements and other public policy levers extending digitally across state lines can help learners gain and retain relevant credit for their time, effort, and cost. Many states have adopted laws and policies that require statewide transferability of lower-division courses and guaranteed transfer of associate degrees among public institutions within the state.

Policymakers can help working adult learners achieve by opening channels to competency-based education and quality short-term training programs. The 2023 Policy Playbook highlights those who are putting implementing policy recommendations and realizing success for learners.


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