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Pedagogo S3E5: Exploring New Pathways for Student Success

In this episode, Dr. Bheda is joined by Dr. Amber Garrison Duncan of Lumina Foundation*, which seeks to expand the share of Americans who have a post-secondary education, training, and certification. They discuss the demographic changes and workplace trends that are reducing the high-school-to-college pipeline while increasing older learners’ demand for education and training. 

Resources for this episode: 

*This interview was recorded when Dr. Garrison Duncan was at the Lumina Foundation. She now serves as the Executive Vice President of the Competency-Based Education Network.

Guest Bio:

Amber Garrison Duncan, Ph.D., is the former strategy director at Lumina Foundation, an independent, private foundation in Indianapolis that is committed to making opportunities for learning beyond high school available to all. In that role, she led a portfolio of work that supports the creation of a system in which student success and credential attainment are scaled up significantly, particularly in community colleges. She recently joined the Competency-Based Education Network as Executive Vice President.

This work allows Dr. Garrison Duncan to draw on her 15 years of experience as a campus-based professional, designing co-curricular learning experiences and leading assessment. Prior to joining Lumina in 2013, she served as director of student affairs assessment and research at the University of Oregon; director of family programs and commencement at the University of Oregon; a first-year experience instructor at Florida State University; an intake and investigations coordinator at the University of Michigan; and as assistant director of housing and Greek life at Hope College.

Dr. Garrison Duncan has researched and written on general education, assessment, innovation in student affairs, Latinas in higher education, and women in leadership. She is co-editor of the book Leading Assessment for Student Success: Ten Tenets That Change Culture and Practice in Student Affairs, published in 2015.

She holds a bachelor’s degree from Texas Woman’s University, a master’s degree from Texas A&M University and a doctorate from the University of Oregon.

Transcript:

Announcer:

Pedagogo, the show that brings education to your ears and meta-mastery to your assessments. Today’s episode explores how colleges can transform their approaches to support non-traditional students in attaining post-secondary education, training, and certification.

Pedagogo brought to you by ExamSoft, the digital assessment solution that gives you actionable data for improved learning outcomes. When integrity matters, ExamSoft has you covered.

Divya Bheda:

Hello everyone. Thank you for being such engaged listeners and tuning into season three of Pedagogo. A season that focuses on big ideas and trends in education. We have the wonderful Dr. Amber Garrison Duncan, who is a strategy director at Lumina Foundation as a guest with us today. Lumina Foundation is an independent private foundation in Indianapolis that is committed to making opportunities for learning beyond high school available to all. I can tell you that numerous national level projects and innovations around student learning and assessment have been made possible through Lumina support. I cannot tell you how impactful they have been on student learning and assessment in higher education over the last few years. So you can see why we are chatting with Dr. Garrison Duncan on various assessment and education topics. Now in her role at Lumina, Amber leads a portfolio of work that supports the creation of a system in which students success and credential attainment are scaled up significantly, particularly in community colleges.

Divya Bheda:

This work, allows her to draw on her 15 years of experience as a campus-based professional, designing co-curricular learning experiences and leading assessments. I let her tell you a little bit more about her professional journey, but a few key highlights that I wanna share personal as well as professional is that Dr. Amber Garrison Duncan has researched and written on general education, on assessment, innovation and student affairs, Latinas in higher education and women in leadership. She is co-editor of the book, Leading Assessment for Student Success: Ten Tenets That Change Culture and Practice in Student Affairs, which was published in 2015 and apart from me. And I think I have a lot of lovely junk jewelry. I have to note that she has the most wonderful collection of accessories that I envy, um, and she is an amazing mentor (laughs). So, so I’m excited to introduce you to her and, and welcome Amber, thank you so much for being here and spending time with us today.

Amber Garrison Duncan:

Oh, Divya, what a kind introduction, it is, uh, really a pleasure to join you today. Thank you again for having me with you.

Divya Bheda:

I wanted to ask you to start off with, if you could just talk a little bit and share your professional journey in terms of how you got to be here.

Amber Garrison Duncan:

Sure. Sure. Well, hi everyone again, Divya, it’s, it’s great to join for this conversation and just a little bit about myself and I’ll just share, I’m a you know, small town girl from Texas who found her way to Texas Woman’s University and, uh, for my undergraduate career. And that moment for me was really transformational in the sense that, um, you know, TWU is a very diverse place. And by every sense of the word, whether we’re talking about race and ethnicity, or we’re talking about age, uh, we’re talking about income and so had a really powerful learning experience, but also a personal journey that, um, where I was very involved as a student and found myself, you know, sucked into high-, into student affairs. If you talk to a lot of student affairs professionals is how we, how we get in the field. Um, and, uh, was very curious about how I could play a role in shaping the student experience and contributing to learning that happened in the co-curriculum.

Amber Garrison Duncan:

And so I decided to pursue, you know, a master’s degree in higher education administration and student affairs at Texas A&M. And after that, I just said, where can I go? What, where can I go do this work? And moved to Michigan of all places where I had no idea what I was doing. Um, people were very clear, like don’t buy a coat in Texas, and I just didn’t understand why aren’t coats the same wherever you make them? They’re not, uh, clearly. And so moved to the, to Michigan where I learned about lots of snow and cold in May, but how, again, started my career in student affairs at Hope College I’ve always considered myself a generalist. So I have worked in lots of different areas of student affairs. So I’ve worked in housing and Greek life and conduct, family programs. So really, you know, it’s very hard to contain me in one kind of area (laughs) if you will.

Amber Garrison Duncan:

So, you know, from my time at Hope, went on to work in Michigan and Florida and Oregon, again, a lot of different areas and, uh, at the University of Oregon where we had the pleasure of meeting and working together, um, I actually started the Office of Student Affairs Research & Assessment, which was a passion project of mine, just because again, we understood a lot about the student experience, but as I came to learn from my assessment work in particular around with co-curricular learning, is that students were demonstrating a lot of skillsets and implying their classroom learning in new ways that just wasn’t being validated and it wasn’t being documented. And so, you know, it was hard to help them use that in the labor market ’cause employers are often asking, you know, “What, what do you know, what can you do?” And it’s self-report is not always the best from their lens.

Amber Garrison Duncan:

And so it was a part of doing that work, which then brought me to Lumina where, you know, my role has been, as, as Divya mentioned, funding a lot of projects around what’s quality, what’s learning, what’s assessment, uh, where does learning happen? And how do we value that in new and different ways? And so I’ve been at Lumina now for almost eight years and really have appreciated the opportunity to work, uh, both again with institutions, with state agencies, with national policy, shops around a variety of these issues.

Divya Bheda:

Thank you for such a robust view of your life and career trajectory. Because again, I think listeners understanding that generalist perspective is so valuable for the conversation that we’re gonna have. So thank you for sharing that with us, Amber. So my first question to you is that we are all dealing with a lot of uncertainty today about our futures, given the reality of COVID and all the other issues related to that happening around the world. However, there seem to be definite trends in higher education that I know that you are aware of given your role, where you live at Lumina, what are some of those population and student trends that you think higher education professionals need to keep in mind and consider in their educational contexts?

Amber Garrison Duncan:

Sure. It’s such a good question. Um, ’cause I, I know again, given my experiences, I just said it’s very, um, easy to get situated in your institutional bubble and maybe not kind of see some of the trends that are emerging nationally. And so in response to this question there are a couple of things I would wanna highlight. One is thinking about the role of traditional aged students. Currently much of higher education in the ecosystem is focused on serving traditionally aged college students. That is great. I’m not saying that that’s not important ’cause it is important. However, I think there’s-

Divya Bheda:

And that the 18 to 22, whatever 22 year olds, right?

Amber Garrison Duncan:

18 to 22, right? Coming right out of high school, going right into college, you know, is how we tend to think about, you know, the pipeline. And so there are some changes to the pipeline coming, and this is demographic data, right? If we’re talking about a pipeline, one report that I would encourage folks to read regularly and check in when they publish, um, new data is the Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education, publishes a report called Knocking at the College Door. And what this report does is take state level data, demographic data, and starts to help us understand trends that are coming because we can start to project based on birth rates today who might be coming to college, you know, in 18 years.

Divya Bheda:

Okay.

Amber Garrison Duncan:

And there’s, you know, the data that was published last year shows that, uh, and this is kind of, we’ve kind of been knowing this is coming, is that nationally the number of high school graduates is expected to peak in the mid ’20s when 2020, so about 2025, it will be the highest that it will be and will be on a modest decline through the end of 2037. So we’re about to experience about the decade where the number of high school graduates will consistently decrease over time. And it won’t start to potentially go back up until after 2037. So, you know, there’s significant considerations for that again, and we’re not just talking about, you know, 10,000, we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of high school graduates and the number declining.

Divya Bheda:

Wow.

Amber Garrison Duncan:

Um, yeah, so, you know, after 2025 in the South, it’s projected that, uh, the Southern States we’ll see a decline about 1.4 million high school graduates. In the Northeast, it is projected to decline by about 570,000 students, in the Midwest, we will see where Indianapolis is and Indiana. Um, in the Midwest States, we’ll see about a decrease over that time, about 700,000 students. And then the West we’ll see a significant decrease as well, uh, a little over 800,000 students that will again, just not be in the pipeline anymore.

Amber Garrison Duncan:

And so that is an important thing to understand and, and be able to see, as we think about enrollments and enrollment challenges, even the ones we’re seeing now that will, will start to be the norm. I think this will also create a market condition where-

Divya Bheda:

Mh-mm-hmm (affirmative).

Amber Garrison Duncan:

… you know, again will be extremely competitive to attract these, these traditional 18 year olds to come to your campus. I think some campuses will have to have some hard conversations about who they’re going to serve.

Divya Bheda:

Okay.

Amber Garrison Duncan:

Um, but the, the other thing I would point out to folks to pay attention to is while we’re experiencing that decline, we are having, uh, we have a large number of adults in this country. So adult learners, 25 and older who have no post-secondary credential. And the reason this is very significant and why Lumina does its work is that we know by 2025 and then beyond it’s projected that 70% of our population is going to have to have a post-secondary credential. And that can be an industry certification or certificate degree. You have to have one of those things to access a living wage job, a self-sufficient job, you know, be able to have enough to support your family and, and live.

Amber Garrison Duncan:

That’s pretty significant. But when we compare that to the population now, um, you know, when we, when I look at, uh, the total number of adults, again, who have, don’t have any post-secondary credential, we often call them the untapped workforce, the population size of our U.S. uncredentialed adults is larger than they, the entire population of every OECD country except for Mexico. So if you think about, we’re trying to, we have, uh, almost like country-size population of adult learners who need post-secondary learning and are gonna need post-secondary learning. Some of the good news is that some of them have tried, there’s 36 million Americans who have some kind of post-secondary education and training, but they stopped out and they haven’t completed.

Amber Garrison Duncan:

And so, you know, how do we get some of those learners back, um, so that they can complete those? So I do think some of the decline in traditional age students in this large population of adult learners will again, require institutions to reconsider who they’re enrolling, how they’re enrolling and how they’re continue to contribute, uh, and be economic engines. Um, the last thing I would just point out is certainly again, you mentioned this moment in time is we are in the midst of an economic recovery. And in order to think about how we make that inclusive, we have to think about working learners because the majority of folks who’ve been disproportionately impacted by the COVID economic decline are individuals of color. Again, a lot of working adults, we cannot have an inclusive recovery unless we start to serve these learners and make sure we’re building programs to serve them.

Divya Bheda:

Thank you. Thank you so much for sharing that perspective because what that makes me think about is not just do we have to look at it from an enrollment perspective. We also have to look at it from a faculty training perspective, because how do you communicate with adult learners? How do you communicate with students who have partial knowledge, not all the knowledge, but they don’t come in with zero knowledge? And then how do you account for the fact that it’s not gonna be work study based? You know, I can schedule my work hours based on my classes. You actually have to schedule your class timings according to student needs and student responsibilities. So my next question is, you know, you have the finger on the pulse in terms of Lumina being the center of policy, government, institutions, and innovation. So could you share a little bit about Lumina’s strategy, vision and goals, and why are these goals important?

Amber Garrison Duncan:

I think for us, it goes back to some of those facts and figures I just shared about what it is that Americans will need to thrive in the future. And so in 2008, Lumina was able to support some of the brightest minds. So I would say if you’re not following the Georgetown Center on Workforce and the Education, Tony Carnavale is an economist who does really great work. And then talking again with some demographers and saying, “You know, what do we think the future of work is going to be? And what kind of education is that gonna require?” Um, especially because you can see the there’s lots of, there were lots of conversations about the future of work and the role of, you know, our economy and our type of work is going through a train, a digital transformation, right? So that’s requiring different skills of people.

Amber Garrison Duncan:

Again, requiring more education, a high school diploma doesn’t cut it anymore. Back to 2008, we, you know, took all that information and set out what we call Goal 2025. So again, by 2025, 60% of Americans will have to have a post-secondary credential to get a family sustaining a job and wage. And so everything that we do is centered towards that. Um, and we have particular portfolios of work. So right now, as you mentioned in my title, I’m thinking about whether the role of community colleges in that. We have another team that focuses on four-year institutions and bachelors-providing institutions. And then we have folks who work in, think about what a state policy look like? What does federal policy look like?

Amber Garrison Duncan:

We can’t lobby our dues specific legislation, but we do a lot of educating of policy makers. So they understand what’s coming and can start to think about the future and what their education and workforce systems need to look like to help people thrive. The other piece I will say about being at Lumina is, you know, while those are all the systems we’re trying to impact, what I love is that we keep the student at the center though, the person that these systems and our societal systems have to serve. And so being able to just represent that in those conversations is really important to us.

Divya Bheda:

I think that focus on the economic wellbeing of students, that yes, we can learn for the sake of learning and we can create lifelong learners. Um, and you’re trying to figure out ways to officially recognize that lifelong learning and all the skills you learn along the way, but the idea that we want to make sure there’s economic mobility, you know, financially our country and citizens are thriving. I think that’s wonderful to hear. So thank you for sharing that. So, you know, Amber, I have heard you speak in other contexts about three big ideas that I’m interested in that I think our listeners would be interested in and would wanna learn more about. So the first one is the comprehensive learner record. And I know earlier when you talked about it, it was, you were talking about all these skills that are shown or seen or gained in extra curricular avenues or forums. And so could you tell me a little bit more about what this comprehensive learner record is and why it should matter to educators as they think about their-

Amber Garrison Duncan:

Yeah.

Divya Bheda:

… programs?

Amber Garrison Duncan:

Yeah. So I’d love to talk to them. This is one of my favorite projects to have been a part of at Lumina. I’ll just kind of share a little bit of the background of why we got into this conversations. One of the things that we’ve been funding when we think about, again, the learners we’re trying to serve and folks who have been marginalized and historically, uh, you know, actually discriminated against for coming into higher education, um, we were finding how do we have different academic models and ways to be able to think about those learners from an asset based approach? But also find more flexible pathways throughs, that led us to competency based education in particularly for adults of color, who, you know, as you said, like they’re doing a lot of different things before they come to a higher education institution. We found that some of them had served in the military and received tons of learning from their education and training in the military.

Amber Garrison Duncan:

Some had been provided with, uh, training by their employer, in, in different types of education from their employer. Um, or, you know, some of them are just really doing some awesome things in their community that gives them new skillsets that I might categorize in some of the things we might call Gen Ed around critical thinking and teamwork that could be captured. And so in these competency based education programs, the schools were starting to recognize that learning, but because it was all competency based, the transcript one, isn’t a good tool, internal to the institution to track all this and two, when the student wants to see it, it doesn’t tell them what they know and can do, nor does it tell an employer or their next education provider, what they know and can do in a way that again, is based on learning outcomes based on competencies and skills.

Amber Garrison Duncan:

And so, uh, we set out to, to change that record and say, if we can use this as an enabling tool, uh, we think that that would be very good. At the same time that all that was happening, you also started to see new types of just digital transcripts emerging, um, and new ways to think about how technology again, can enable us to just see things differently and put it on display differently. And so with those two things that all came together and created the comprehensive learner record project, where institutions are now looking at creating a competency based digital record, that includes whatever learning you want it to validate for the student, from wherever it comes from, in one place. And then also that the student gets to own that and show that to the employer. And we’ve heard from employers, they really value that learning, and they really value it being documented in this way.

Amber Garrison Duncan:

Because if you think about when you’ve done a hiring process and you could see someone’s beautiful LinkedIn, but if you came on my LinkedIn and maybe my grandmother was like, “Amber is great at public relations and marketing,” like maybe she thought I did a flyer at once, and that was good, but that’s not validated learning your skillsets and that’s actually not something I’m expertise in. So employers sometimes don’t trust that information.

Divya Bheda:

Mh-mm-hmm (affirmative).

Amber Garrison Duncan:

Um, and this gives them something that’s validated that again is directly from the student, but validated by the institution for them to use in their hiring process. And so we find that the employers are really valuing that too.

Divya Bheda:

Right. I remember you saying that this was, you know, skills-based hiring that employers often spend so much time investigating the truth of a resume to see-

Amber Garrison Duncan:

Yeah.

Divya Bheda:

… whether, you know, because of Psych 101 or Sociology 101 is not adequate to say what skills, what competencies-

Amber Garrison Duncan:

Yes.

Divya Bheda:

… a student has. And so a comprehensive learner record is a way to showcase your portfolios, your projects, to say the nuances of your skillsets and that they have been demonstrated in ways that an employer wants to see them. Um-

Amber Garrison Duncan:

Yes.

Divya Bheda:

… and so then it, it removes all the investigational steps that employers have to do. So I really-

Amber Garrison Duncan:

Yeah.

Divya Bheda:

… appreciate your talking about that.

Amber Garrison Duncan:

And thank you for bringing up the assessment piece, because that’s something I forgot to mention. It, the beauty of these digital formats again, is that you can provide evidence. You will find institutions are taking the assessment, whatever they did to assess that competency of your skillset, put student work products in to say, “This is exactly what this person did to demonstrate. And this is how we assess their competency,” in that actually that’s what employers love, because they are trying to understand how to contextualize that competency and skillset in the workplace setting. And so having that additional evidence, and again, this really leans on our assessment professionals to think about how we do that, but those, those evidences can be placed in this digital format in this comprehensive learner record. And that’s, they really love that.

Divya Bheda:

Right. And it sounds also for listeners we also have an episode with Dr. Charla Long, uh-

Amber Garrison Duncan:

Yes.

Divya Bheda:

… from Competency-Based Education Network, who is stocking everything competency based education. So please make sure you tune in it’s, it’s an episode in this season. But speaking to what you were saying, Amber, thinking about assessment. So I think what I’m hearing is the advice that you’re giving institutions and programs and educators is think about the relevance of your assessment-

Amber Garrison Duncan:

Yes.

Divya Bheda:

… in terms of its applicability to the workforce.

Amber Garrison Duncan:

Yes.

Divya Bheda:

Think about ways in which you have, you’re working with your registrar’s office, or you’re working with enrollment management services to have that captured and represented in a portfolio or a comprehensive learner record so that students can showcase that because it then makes the transition from higher Ed to caviar for the student easier. And given that our future students are looking to increase their professional levels in the workforce, this is the best way to have assessments and assignments that are more relevant, that can be captured, and that can lay out specific skills that are directly applicable in the market. Right?

Amber Garrison Duncan:

That’s right. That’s absolutely right. One more benefit that doesn’t get talked about (laughs) for, uh, for some of my Gen Ed, you know, like you mentioned, my dissertation was on general education curriculum. A lot of the intellectual skills that we talk about in Gen Ed require higher level metacognitive. They need to be able to manage and own my own learning, know what I know. And there’s also great evidence coming out from the institutions that this type of tool allows learners to have a framework by which to organize and understand their learning, to understand where they’re learning connect dots between different places that they’re learning and practicing these skillsets and competencies. So that, I just have to say that too, from a learning perspective, there’s lots of good evidence coming out about how we get deeper levels of learning and, uh, development of those metacognitive skillsets that are so important.

Divya Bheda:

Yup. And thank you for, for shining that spotlight on Gen Ed, because I know a lot of liberal arts educators have this concern that is education just becoming all about technical learning and all about caviar. And the point that you’re making is no, it is all about substantive, critical thinking skills like lifelong learning skills. And we are enabling that, and this is another way to showcase that, so.

Amber Garrison Duncan:

That’s right. Absolutely.

Divya Bheda:

Thank you. So the next big idea that I’ve heard you talk about is non-traditional pathways to credentialing. So could you elaborate a little bit more about what is the scope of credentialing? Because the way I know it traditionally has been, you know, a bachelor’s degree or a master’s degree or an associate’s degree or a PhD, or, you know, whatever it is. If you could talk a little bit more about the different types of credentialing that are coming into play now I would really appreciate it.

Amber Garrison Duncan:

Yeah, yeah, definitely. Um, I, the first, so yes, your experience was my experience, you know, right? I mentioned, I went to TWU and I got a bachelor’s degree and then a master’s and PhD. Working at Lumina again, we, we were doing a lot of work around what’s the quality of degrees? And invested in the degree qualifications profile. So if you’re out there and you’ve used the DQP give it a shout out. And while we were doing that work in particular to, to conversations and to push back Pete moments, because the DPP is looking at again it’s degrees. So it’s looking at associate’s, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees and trying to provide some kind of frame of what quality degrees should have in, in them by way of learning outcomes, given that we don’t have a common standard in the U.S. right? So this was just trying to capture from the field, what is the most common outcomes?

Amber Garrison Duncan:

As we’re doing that again, this pushback started to come in, starting with community colleges who were like, “This, isn’t all we do, there are lots of different, you know, other types of credentials, certificates, industry certifications that we provide education towards.” Um, but then we also started to get a pushback from the graduate side, because if you think about this there’s graduate certificates, and maybe some of you all have some of these certificates are the things that started to come into the mix. And it’s like, well, where do we put those? How do those fit in the picture? Um, and so we started to explore.

Divya Bheda:

You know, and you also talked about like, people who don’t finish their degree. Right? So what about all of them?

Amber Garrison Duncan:

Right. Yeah.

Divya Bheda:

They’ve taken coursework, but then they have to restart all over.

Amber Garrison Duncan:

Yup. Yup. That happens. So all, all of this is, you know, swirling in that ecosystem. And this is where I grew a lot in my own, in my own knowledge. And also had to be reminded that those types of credentials are not new in the U.S. nor are they new around the world. If you go back to the very beginnings of the Guild movement, right? Is you had folks who were doing bricklaying, mortar, where if you think about the different guilds that were kind of a bit more, what we might call vocational, you know, those have existed for years and years, and how you do your training for an electrician. You do that through apprenticeships or other types of, again, credentialing opportunities. So some of these things are trades and things that have again been around for years, that it was like, oh right, those, those are credentials. That’s learning beyond high school. That leads to a good job. And some family sustaining wages.

Amber Garrison Duncan:

But I think what has happened in the last little bit is that, you know, with tech, again, this digital transformation coming on board, you see all kinds of new jobs being created at the intersection of technology and healthcare. There are new jobs about how to manage the digital transformation of healthcare records. We just talked about transcripts, same as happening in healthcare. I get new types of jobs that require different mashups of knowledge that might, most of it, maybe isn’t a degree, but maybe there’s this technology certifications that you get that combines and gives you the skillset knowledge that you need to get that job, so, uh.

Divya Bheda:

Be it the intersections of various disciplines almost because-

Amber Garrison Duncan:

Yes.

Divya Bheda:

… you need both of them to function well in that role.

Amber Garrison Duncan:

Exactly. Exactly. So this is, again, not just create a new types of jobs, but different types of credentials and different mashup, uh, credentials set or, or again, restructuring of programs. And I think as, as higher education and workforce, our labor employers have tried to figure out you know, “We have to ask this question of who should provide what.” So in technology, for instance, it, when we talked to Microsoft before, you know, they have their suite of industry certifications, they know that it is impossible for higher education ship their curriculum at the speed at which the software and coding world is changing. So that’s why they’ve created this process ’cause they’re, they’re reassessing some of their staff monthly because things are changing so quickly.

Amber Garrison Duncan:

So that’s, I think, again, why you start to see different places for credentialing to happen, different types of learning to happen based on how quickly and dynamic the labor market is shifting, but also who can move quickly, what partnerships are necessary? So now we’re starting to see this, what was a very fragmented credentialing system. And I don’t know that I would call it a system. I might just call it credentialing bodies-

Divya Bheda:

Mh-mm-hmm (affirmative).

Amber Garrison Duncan:

… and I would include higher education as degree-granting having to think differently about how this all comes together. And it’s no longer possible for us to sit in our silos and to sit in our boxes because students need us to think about how all these things come together, because they either need, again, that mashup of things, or they need to navigate between the systems to get what they need to get that job they want.

Divya Bheda:

So what are some solutions that are coming up related to credentialing them?

Amber Garrison Duncan:

Yeah.

Divya Bheda:

So I know you talked about certificates, so that seems to be a very common thing. Um, you know, get a-

Amber Garrison Duncan:

Yeah.

Divya Bheda:

… certification in a particular field. What are some other things that people need to be paying-

Amber Garrison Duncan:

Yeah.

Divya Bheda:

… attention to and possibly even consider offering at their institutions?

Amber Garrison Duncan:

Yeah. You know, one of the coolest thing I think that I’m seeing now is there’s a group of institutions that call themselves dual mission colleges because, uh, you know, one, they’re seeing this trend of adult learners-

Divya Bheda:

Mh-mm-hmm (affirmative).

Amber Garrison Duncan:

… who are again working like we’re all adults. We can’t-

Divya Bheda:

Right.

Amber Garrison Duncan:

… take time off for years to go back and get right, like we have families to provide for. So what I think is interesting about these dual mission colleges, they’re saying, “Let’s use these different types of credentials to create an incremental credentialing system.” So you can come in and get a very technical industry certification or certificate that again, gets you into the labor market, gets you into a starting wage. But what we’re gonna do is say, don’t stop there. Now, we’re gonna work you into your associate’s degree. And then we’re gonna work you right into your bachelor’s degree. And guess what? You can do that all at the same place. You don’t have-

Divya Bheda:

Mh-mm-hmm (affirmative).

Amber Garrison Duncan:

… to transfer from the two-year to the four-year, to the X to the Y. Right? And so that is I think, a really interesting trend and phenomenon where you can see for the adult learner, how these different credentials, again, start to stack up and create mobility for them in a way that our system hasn’t done before. If the colleges aren’t changing their mission to do all of that work, cool partnerships. So I always like to point to, um, Mi Casa Resource Center is in Denver, Colorado, they offer an entry-level financial services certification, and then they’ve partnered with Aurora Community College to make sure those individuals have a pathway into their associates. And then Aurora has partnered with Metro State to make sure they have a smooth pathway into their bachelor’s degree. So they get credit for everything that they’ve learned on the way up. But that pathway again is very clear. And the handoffs between those different providers are supported by advising and by basic needs support to make sure the student can keep going. So-

Divya Bheda:

Right.

Amber Garrison Duncan:

… those are definitely the ways that again, people are starting to think outside of themselves and think differently about how these different pathways can be created by these partnerships.

Divya Bheda:

So it sounds like what you’re talking about is keep the student needs in mind, keep the students’ reality in mind and think of stacking the program and the degree so that you have the right partnerships so that the student can learn at their own pace, get the credentials that they need in the short-term, but don’t lose out because they have to figure out, “Okay, now, like I’ve got this, but I don’t know what to do next.” And all the next-

Amber Garrison Duncan:

Yes.

Divya Bheda:

… is going to be like a three-year commitment. “And this is what I got now, doesn’t count.” So making sure that every learning and every credential counts, so whether it’s badging-

Amber Garrison Duncan:

Yes.

Divya Bheda:

… or whether it’s certification, whatever it counts towards some recognition in the field and in the industry. And there’s clear handoffs, right?

Amber Garrison Duncan:

That’s right. Those clear handoffs are essential, you know, stackable credentials aren’t new. But what we know about them is it’s not just enough to build the pathway, it’s we need to help this learner to walk through that, stay on the path, just like you would in your four year institution we talk about like put students on a path, keep them on a path, same thing on this. And that’s really essential and important-

Divya Bheda:

Right.

Amber Garrison Duncan:

… component.

Divya Bheda:

Right. And the big thing is the flexibility of it that a student can get a break-

Amber Garrison Duncan:

Yes.

Divya Bheda:

… but come back because the, the pathway is-

Amber Garrison Duncan:

Yes.

Divya Bheda:

… there and the student can just come back to it when they are ready, if they needed a six month break because, you know, they have family pressures, they have work pressures, but the pathway is laid out and it always counts.

Amber Garrison Duncan:

Yes.

Divya Bheda:

So that’s wonderful to hear. Thank you so much.

Amber Garrison Duncan:

The, the thing, you know, from an institutional ROI, we get asked this sometimes, but especially from your business officer, he might be saying like, “Aren’t we losing money by giving away free credits?” Uh, and what we’ve found, uh, through some research that our group is called rpk GROUP, they’ve gone through and done an ROI study. So while you may invest, you know, maybe there’s 12 credits given on the front end, by the time that learner stays and finishes, you will have had a business ROI or broken even on them. But most of the time you’re gaining revenue. One because you’re modeling someone that may not have come back. Two, you’re also keeping them enrolled longer because students who have their prior learning recognized are four times more likely to complete their associates and two times more likely to complete their bachelor’s degree.

Amber Garrison Duncan:

And if, and if you’re in a state that reward your public institution for completions, you’ve just got an extra dollars in the door for that at the end of the day. So, uh, we get the, some pushback sometimes around, well, yeah, that has the student in mind, but as an institution, how do we stay afloat if that’s what we’re doing? And what we’ve seen is the business model works?

Divya Bheda:

Well thank you for sharing that as well, because as I’m listening to you talk about prior learning and making sure that we assess that with that, we acknowledge those skills and that’s so needed right now, especially for anyone who’s been working in the industry without the degree or the credential for many years, but now needs it for getting to the next level in their career. This aspect of credentialing becomes so important in terms of them knowing their pathways. So as I’m listening to you talk about this, about comprehensive learner record, about prior learning assessment, non-degree credentialing. I can see the importance of flexibility, but there also seems to be a need for collaboration and consistency across institutions, possibly collaborating with the workflows.

Divya Bheda:

So the, there seems to be like, have the need to bring lots of people together to the table to talk about the vision and the strategy and get everyone on board. And given, you know, we both know. And I think all our listeners know the reality of higher ed in the U.S. which is so siloed, even within an institution where it’s often hard to get student affairs working with the academic side of the house. So given those challenges, how do we work internally and externally across the silos? Any thoughts? (laughs)

Amber Garrison Duncan:

Yes.

Divya Bheda:

Is it, does it require a reframing? I don’t know?

Amber Garrison Duncan:

I, I mean, definitely. I would say we know in every single one of our projects that, um, I’m gonna start with internal to the institution that the whatever work we’re trying to do, it will fail if it does not have a cross institutional leadership team. And so anytime we set up grants with partners, we require that there be a leadership team that includes-

Divya Bheda:

Mh-mm-hmm (affirmative).

Amber Garrison Duncan:

… the academic affairs, student affairs, the business officer at minimum, and that the president is accountable and holding themselves accountable. And those leaders accountable for setting the tone and the vision for how the work has to get done. Because if you don’t have that, any of these initiatives just fall on their face. The other piece that, that allows the institution to do is to be strategic about the external partnerships they built. Part of what institutions spend a lot of time doing is, is doing community or public relations and they’re like in what their government affairs office or they’re in with X, Y, and Z. And so they spend some time external to the institution, but not thinking strategically about how it benefits their student success initiatives.

Amber Garrison Duncan:

What do I need my state senators and my state policymakers to know about the kind of budget I’m gonna need? What do I need a community-based organization, again, like the Mi Casa, was like, “Oh my goodness, here are some great students who should be enrolling in our programs because you’ve already given them a leg up. Let’s use that as an on-ramp.” And especially if we’re trying to serve the Latino community, you know, Mi Casa is the hub of activity for the Latino community in Denver. So thinking very strategically about where you form those partnerships, who has to form that partnership? And being very strategic about how we spend our time and how we, again, target the populations of learners we want to serve is really, really critical.

Amber Garrison Duncan:

Um, also externally, I think some of this is just going to be, even if your leaders aren’t welcoming it at first, it’s increasingly becoming the norm and expectation. If you look at any legislation or any public funding that’s coming out, it’s asking you to do this because we know it’s important for students. And if we’re gonna collectively invest tax dollars in people and their talent development, we have to have a system that does this. And so I think a lot of external pressure will start to be placed on higher Ed as to work as a system like we’ve never done before.

Divya Bheda:

Right. Right.

Amber Garrison Duncan:

Uh, even looking at statewide articulation agreements. If we think about two year to four year transfer, more and more states are saying, “It’s not okay for this to just be one-off relationships that one college happened have with another college. You know what? If you’re offering this as a state, it should be awarded equally for the student. They learn the same learning outcomes.” (laughs)

Divya Bheda:

Right.

Amber Garrison Duncan:

“They should get the same value, no matter what other public institution they go to.” And in some places, the privates are even in that conversation. So again, I think you’re starting to see different players, like state agencies play a role in bringing people to the table to say, “We gotta work this out for students. And there’s an accountability piece here that we are responsible for ’cause-”

Divya Bheda:

Right.

Amber Garrison Duncan:

“… these are public dollars.”

Divya Bheda:

Right. And, and it also sounds like building on what you’re saying. So I never even thought about the government relations and the alumni relations and all of these folks and how to capitalize on those relationships and the work and make that most strategic and intentional in line with academic goals. That is also-

Amber Garrison Duncan:

Yes.

Divya Bheda:

… the element of getting faculty to think about academic freedom in a new way. So academic freedom-

Amber Garrison Duncan:

Oh, yeah.

Divya Bheda:

… doesn’t, you know, it, it’s like this idea of consistency of, of curricular scaffolding of pathways will require some kind of curricular consistency as well. And so for faculty to be collaborating with each other and talking through, “What are you teaching? What am I teaching? Are we repeating the content? How is it really market employability related?”

Amber Garrison Duncan:

Yeah.

Divya Bheda:

You know, things like that. It sounds-

Amber Garrison Duncan:

Yeah.

Divya Bheda:

… right. Right?

Amber Garrison Duncan:

Yeah. A-, Absolutely. And from a faculty perspective, I think some of the things that have, I don’t know, personally brought the most joy of these relationships is, you know, in that, when I talk about creating those statewide articulation agreements, it’s the faculty who are doing that. Right? And so you’ve got the two year and the four-year faculty and they’re having exactly that same conversation of, “What are you teaching? What are you teaching?” You know, how does this again, how does this stack up? How do we scaffold learning over course of this? And so nothing about quality is lost in this conversation. And nothing about academic freedom is lost in that conversation. The faculty are still driving what that actually is. There’s just accountability for folks to have that conversation and resource-

Divya Bheda:

And collaboration there.

Amber Garrison Duncan:

… to make sure it’s there.

Divya Bheda:

Sorry, I missed what you said.

Amber Garrison Duncan:

Yes, it is. It’s making sure that collaboration happens. And to your point of, I don’t think it’s necessary for us to have a standard curriculum or say that that’s not what’s coming out of all this, the academic freedom is still very much there. It’s just asking folks that we’ve gotta be clear about how these pathways and how this learning scaffolds over time.

Divya Bheda:

The next question that I have for you is about prior learning assessment. I’ve heard you talk about it. Could you just share again? Um, I think we have a sense of what it is, but could you share about how, how folks are engaging in prior learning assessment and why-

Amber Garrison Duncan:

Yeah.

Divya Bheda:

… it’s gaining importance?

Amber Garrison Duncan:

Sure. So I would say there’s a couple things, prior learning assessment has been something that we’ve been trying to pursue in the U.S., um, probably since like the ’60s I think. Um, if I’m remembering the timeline correctly, I go back to, there used to be a couple of universities called, um, Universities without Walls. And they were very much focused on adult learners and recognizing again, that people were learning things outside of the walls of the institution. There’s just, wasn’t somebody there to validate that and say, that is, that is demonstrating what I would ask you to do in a traditional classroom. So people started to play around with giving people credit for where that, that knowledge and learning. And there’s been groups of institutions that have been doing this for again decades. If you look at some of those, they’re sometimes called completion colleges. The average adult student comes with seven transcripts where-

Divya Bheda:

Wow.

Amber Garrison Duncan:

… there are 36 million that tried some education and training. If you’re a service member, you have to move around a lot, which means you’ve probably attended three to four institutions while you’re in listed. So they’re coming in with all of this and trying to figure out, “How do we give you credit for what you already know and can do by either looking at those transcripts or looking at your military education or training or looking what your employer has provided.” They might do that through a variety of ways. They’ll look at the content and the material and understand if the curriculum offered was very similar to what they’re offering. They might do challenge tests, where they asked you to come in for an afternoon. And, “We’re gonna walk you through some, you know, simulation methods and ask you to demonstrate and, and observe you and see if you can do that or not. And if we should give you credit for it.”

Amber Garrison Duncan:

And then there’s things that you all are probably super familiar with, which is CLEP tests, right? That’s a form of prior learning assessment saying, “What do you already know and can do. We’re not gonna make you take it again.” AP tests. We’ve used some of these things before for a long time. I think the thing that is new, what we’re encouraged by goes back to some of those pathways we were talking about where prior learning assessment means just in the way it’s phrased, I’m assessing, or I’m reassessing something that’s already been validated by somebody else. And so instead of reassessing and taking all the time to do that, because we have these new types of learner records. And because we have new ways of looking at information, we say, “I’m not going to reassess that. I’m just going to recognize that learning give you credit.”

Amber Garrison Duncan:

And so that has been a movement around recognition of learning by really coming from an assets based approach and saying again, for especially adults who have been out in the workplace, I mean, you don’t want an adult sitting in your class saying, “This is literally what I do at work every day.” That’s not, again, a good use of your time, our time or the taxpayer dollar.

Divya Bheda:

Yes.

Amber Garrison Duncan:

Let’s give them credits and let’s let them move to the next level. As I talk to higher ed institutions about how to serve adult learners, our job is not to treat them, you know, tabula rasa like blank slate. Our role is to say, how do I help you deepen your knowledge? How do I hope you go broad and deep, right? What a gift-

Divya Bheda:

Yes.

Amber Garrison Duncan:

… to be able to have more advanced level, uh, conversations about learning. And we, uh-

Divya Bheda:

This, and this-

Amber Garrison Duncan:

… we just don’t always start that way.

Divya Bheda:

No. And this idea that you’re sharing, thank you, Amber, this idea that you’re sharing is so important because a lot of times it’s like you have preset assignments, preset content in a course, preset everything, which is good. You, we need that because that reduces the load on the faculty, but we also need it to be responsive to student experience and to student prior knowledge. So rather than like you said, we don’t want students to be wasting their time sitting and saying, “I know this stuff like this, I’m just doing it to get a grade to move on.” We want the learning to actually be learning or the demonstration to be a demonstration-

Amber Garrison Duncan:

Right.

Divya Bheda:

… of learning, as opposed to, “I’m just gonna do this because I have to get that degree,” which is what I see a lot of times the conversation is about.

Amber Garrison Duncan:

Is there, is there time for me to share one example that I still-

Divya Bheda:

Yes.

Amber Garrison Duncan:

… just that sits with me?

Divya Bheda:

Yes.

Amber Garrison Duncan:

Um, and it’s not from the U.S. but it’s from, from Dublin where a college theme of partnerships partnered with an employer who understood that they have, uh, they had, you know, a cohort of employees that they wanted to upskill into a particular next job set. And so they went to the college and they worked it out where students could sit in a class and the class wasn’t about teaching them about particular skillsets, right? They’re like, “You already know all these things. Our job in the class is teaching metacognitive skills. And that allow you to understand what you already know and can do to demonstrate that to people and to, to track your knowledge and skillset, and guess what you get credit for all of that, which means there’s a shorter amount of time to that next credential.”

Amber Garrison Duncan:

But again, the beauty of that was, “Oh, we’re, we’re treating them with an asset space and we’re deepening their knowledge and their intellectual skillsets, which means that we have, again, a smarter group of people in general, out in the world of work and interacting in our democracy.” So I think that shifting the role of like, again, I don’t have to teach you everything, but I can help you make sense of it and I can help you deepen that. And that’s, I think pretty cool.

Divya Bheda:

The last question, or the last big idea that wanted to talk to you about is, you know, the common thread across everything is jobs alignment with jobs and careers and social mobility. Right? So what would you say to those folks who think that, “Hey, like my program, uh, may be obsolete.” So an example that I can give is English literature or religious studies or something, you know, where there is some tension and nervousness around the applicability or the job specific relevance to it where the know so important today, but the perception is, oh, no, you’re only talking about degree offering skills based degrees that are all about getting jobs and as don’t necessarily translate to that. So what would you say to folks on that topic?

Amber Garrison Duncan:

Yeah, I, you know, again, for me with studying, writing about Gen Ed, I, I think what I know, and when we talk with employers and, and certainly AAC&U does a great job of surveying employees and employers in their most recent report, uh, that came out at the beginning of 2021 on employer views of higher education, just confirm this is that these liberal education provides skills and knowledge that employers view is important for success at work. And you see that showing up. And when I say skills and competencies, we’re again, we’re thinking about intellectual skills again, like critical thinking communication, some of the problem solving, being able to, to not just think in diverse ways, but interact with, and be in diverse communities with people. And I think a lot of these things are skills too we, we want in a democratic society, so I don’t wanna lose that part.

Amber Garrison Duncan:

It’s like this, these are all things that are important, not just for work. And clearly I’ve talked a lot about work because people need work, but we know that these are skillsets that allow us to function as a society and as a democracy and just because the program might be called one particular thing. I think the beauty again, of some of the work we’ve been talking about is it doesn’t matter what you call that credential or degree, it’s about what is inside of it, that that person is gonna bring out into the world. How do we make that transparent? And, and I think there’s so much room for English literature, um, you know, history, my goodness history right now, um, you know-

Divya Bheda:

Yes.

Amber Garrison Duncan:

… just thinking about how the, the way of thinking in that discipline can be relevant to the problems we’re trying to solve. We talked about interdisciplinary pieces. We’ve been talking about interdisciplinary work in higher education for a long time, but again, we have crazy problems going on, (laughs) whether that’s the climate or the state of our democracy, that will require solutions at the intersections of all of these spaces. And so it’s important for students to bring that disciplinary thinking and to bring those skill sets out. I think it’s just figuring out how do we think about again, how that shows up for them at work and help them make that translation? And, and maybe some of this is bringing a little more of the workforce or a little more of the world into the curriculum.

Amber Garrison Duncan:

I like to talk about there’s employer informed curriculum, where you have, you know, skillsets from employers that you hear that you incorporate into the curriculum, but then there’s really, um, co-created opportunities. So going back to that assessment question, we were talking about very early on is, you know, we see institutions and working with employers to co-create assessments and assignments that are, are real world. And then certainly the role of saying, what are you doing for those adults? What are you currently doing in your job, where this is applicable? And I think if you ask those adults, they will know exactly how they’re bringing what you’re teaching them in the classroom, into what they’re doing in their world of work that can help inform you too.

Divya Bheda:

Thank you for that answer. I think what I’m also hearing from what you’re saying is for educators in these fields that are not considered direct skill application fields for them to be able to start thinking about what is this articulation like, why should students know what they know? Like why do they have to learn this-

Amber Garrison Duncan:

Yes.

Divya Bheda:

… history? And to think about their application and relevance that will then translate into the comprehensive learner record, or that will then translate into the credential or whatever, because then you’re able to articulate the skillsets that can be extrapolated to whatever job, whatever career, because-

Amber Garrison Duncan:

That’s right.

Divya Bheda:

… you are learning about this, not just because you need to know so and so was great or this happened, but-

Amber Garrison Duncan:

Yes.

Divya Bheda:

… the ability to understand this happened because of these, these, these things. And so then how does one relate to the other? And so like, what are those skills? So-

Amber Garrison Duncan:

Yes.

Divya Bheda:

… so again, to recap, what I’m hearing is for all educators across liberal arts, across all these various disciplines is to be thinking about relevance of what they’re teaching and how to articulate that in ways that are considered useful because they are, but we have never-

Amber Garrison Duncan:

Yeah.

Divya Bheda:

… I don’t think ever spent the time in articulating that from an assessment perspective, from a learner perspective. Yeah?

Amber Garrison Duncan:

Yeah, I think so. I think that’s right. I mean, even if you go back to you, the Harvard report, when we invented Gen Ed, right? It was-

Divya Bheda:

Right.

Amber Garrison Duncan:

… we were trying to figure out how we better articulate what it is, what we should be and teaching and how we’re teaching it. I think we’ve just struggled over the history of higher education’s time, right? In doing this. Um, I think we have better tools now, and I think we have better processes to get there, but there’s still a long way to go. And that’s where I think some of the work we’ve been trying to lay out and help support, builds on that theme.

Divya Bheda:

Um, do you have any final thoughts that you’d like to share or any final notes or advice to educators?

Amber Garrison Duncan:

The only thing I would say is we talked about a lot of things that can feel overwhelming (laughs) to-

Divya Bheda:

Yeah.

Amber Garrison Duncan:

… especially if you’re that’s the first time I’ve heard this. Um, and I, all I can say is just start with something. This will be a transformation of our system that will be going on for years. There’s a lot of change to make, but starting with your program or starting with one of your classes, pick up one of the things we’ve talked about and just start implementing. And that will, you know, as with anything, give you some inertia to start moving. And once the ball’s rolling, it won’t stop, but don’t, don’t feel overwhelmed. That’s the only thing I wanna say.

Divya Bheda:

(laughs) Thank you. That’s good advice. So folks, thank you for listening into this wonderful, wonderful conversation that we had with Dr. Amber Garrison Duncan. We learned about prior learning assessment, we learned about comprehensive learner records, we learned to think about where our students are gonna be, who our students are gonna be, we learned the importance of flexibility of understanding the student perspective in, in terms of their commitments and work needs and family support needs. We learned about credentialing and the options like badging, working collectively across institutions to figure out pathways that are practical, that make sense to our students. So we learned so much from you. Thank you so much, Amber, thank you for being here and, and having this wonderful conversation with us. It was really enlightening. Thank you.

Amber Garrison Duncan:

Thank you. Thank you. My pleasure.

Divya Bheda:

Thank you everyone. Thank you for listening. And I hope you tune into the next podcast, uh, episode. And I look forward to sharing some more insights and knowledge that I gained from our interviewees with you. Thank you.

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