U.S higher education has a completion problem. At many institutions, half the student body is failing to complete a degree within six years, and those students are the most likely to renege on their loans.
Students from the lowest income families, who may have overcome steep odds just to get to college, are the most likely to drop out without anything to show for their work. In these cases, their efforts to secure a college education may have actually eroded their financial security vis-a-vis their less motivated peers who got jobs after high school.
What can universities do to increase their graduation rates and keep the most vulnerable students persisting until graduation?
Clark Gilbert, President of BYU Pathway Worldwide, joined the Enrollment Growth University podcast to talk about the potential power of certificate-first degree programs, especially for the adult student.
BYU Pathway Worldwide’s Certificate-First Degree Programs
The Pell Institute at the University of Pennsylvania tracks college completion rates every year. They have found that if your parents were in the top quartile of income, your odds of completing a bachelor’s degree are a little bit over 50%. But if you grew up in the bottom quartile of income in the home you grew up in, your odds of completing a bachelor’s degree drop to less than 12%.
At a school like BYU Pathway Worldwide, which spun off of BYU Idaho, many students come from low-income homes and represent the first generation of their families to go to college.
“We knew that even if we doubled or tripled the national average,” Gilbert said, “for bachelor’s completion, we would still have many students who didn’t finish.”
That realization caused BYU Pathway Worldwide’s leadership to ask: Why do we start college with general education? Why don’t we start it with something that seems much more relevant, particularly to first-generation, lower-income students?
“What we found has really been transformational,” Gilbert said.
The university created a Certificate First model with the idea that many students wouldn’t complete their bachelor’s degrees. Ironically, since the program’s launch, students are completing their degrees at much higher rates.
“By accelerating the certificate into the first year of the degree, students not only get job-relevant skill training and higher employability prospects,” Gilbert said, “but the odds that they keep going on to complete their bachelor’s degree go up.”
Once BYU students complete that first certificate, their 65% persistence rate jumps to 86%.
How to Help Students Choose the Correct Degree Right Away
Many institutions believe students use their general education classes to explore their career options. But most general education curricula aren’t designed to help students discover their professional interests. They’re designed to broaden your base of thought, to make you a critical thinker.
From the institution’s perspective, it may be appealing to say we are giving students time to explore what they want to do before they commit to a major. That doesn’t work.
“For most American students, and especially at-risk students,” Gilbert said, “we’re going to lose them before they make their decision.
If only one-tenth of students in the bottom quartile of income are completing their bachelor’s degrees, curriculum innovation won’t fix that. It’s a moral and ethical crisis for higher education.
“And so, we’ve tried to put things into our Certificate First approach which help the student decide,” Gilbert said, “including interest surveys and job shadowing and exploratory first courses and interviews with people in the field.”
BYU Pathway Worldwide also created a stackable degree structure so that a certificate in one field can stack into different associate or bachelor’s degrees.
“You may not stay in that one discipline but we still want to pull your certificate forward as part of your path to completion,” Gilbert explained.
Certificate-First Financial Benefits for Students
The U.S. Department of Higher Education statistics shows that the student who started college and acquired debt but failed to finish a degree has the highest college debt default rate.
It’s a multiplier effect. You’re much less likely to have debt without an ability to earn more. Hence, if you complete a certificate and stop, your earning power has gone up.
“Not only does that give you a chance to pay back some of the time you spent in your schooling,” Gilbert told us, “but it also gives you an accelerated income if you have acquired debt. And then, of course, it also raises the probability you progress on to other credentials and degrees.”
This approach isn’t just compelling for at-risk students. Look at state universities such as those along the Wasatch front in Utah, Idaho, and Arizona near BYU. Only a few have completion rates significantly higher than 50% within a six-year period.
“We have to do this at BYU Pathway,” Gilbert said, “because we work with first-generation, lower-income students as our dominant profile, but even at a traditional state university where they’re not graduating more than 60% of their students in a six-year period, my sentiment to those educational leaders is, ‘Why aren’t you looking at doing this even in those settings?”
Next-Steps Advice for Institutions Considering Certificate-First Degree Programs
If you’re not going to re-sequence your general education coursework, at least make career exploration part of the general education the program and open the option for a certificate.
“One of the things that you’ll need to do to create a Certificate First,” Clark said, “you can’t just replace prereqs of a major and call it a certificate.”
That’s because few employers are saying, “Yeah, I’m looking for people who did prereq’s in healthcare administration.” Instead, they want something that is tied to a job skill. So move some of the career readiness curricula into the prerequisite courses.
“My counsel,” Clark told us, “would be, ‘Make sure your GE has some carer exploration component in it, and look at creating certificate optionality even if it’s not the very first thing they do. And that will require you to move some job skills into places where you historically just have prerequisite course work.”
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