A Student View of Quality in Education

Sep 20, 2019
Chris Flanagan

Dear Students of America,

Did you know that there are 334,000+ unique credentials and 500,000+ programs in the U.S. alone? Your range of educational options is limitless. Whether you are 18-, 28- or 58-years old, there’s never been a better time to be a student today, to discover your passion, to explore your interests, to find a successful career path, to change a career path. And, there’s never been a worse time to be a student. How on Earth are you to make sense of all these options? How to understand and assess the time, effort, and investment required for all these different kinds of credentials? What’s the right path? What’s the right cost? What’s the right outcome?

For the past several months, I’ve been working with a group of higher education change makers who have rolled up their sleeves to tackle two of the most important questions facing students today: What should quality look like in this new, wild west world of education beyond high school? And how can we make sure it is accessible and equitable for all?

The group recently released their recommendations for a new quality assurance model and with a bit of luck and a whole lot of coordination and collaboration, your experience getting into and through college to a successful career should get better. But it’s going to take time. So it strikes me, you might, during this time of innovation and upheaval, benefit from some self-advocacy. Because no matter what kind of program or school you’re interested in or enrolled in, or what kind of socio-economic background you come from, or race you identify with, or promotion you seek, or age you are, or place you live, there are a few things you should expect from a high-quality education and it’s time to ask for it.

But first, let’s get a single word of jargon out of the way and that’s ‘credential.’ You are going to hear it a lot and it’s simply a formal way of saying you’ve earned, through some sort of demonstration, something of value. It could be a certification to be an electrician, or a certificate for software programming, or a degree in mechanical engineering, or a badge to indicate you know how to analyze data, or an apprenticeship to demonstrate competency in solar panel installations. Credentials REALLY matter in today’s world. So much so that by the end of next year, it’s expected that 65% of ALL jobs will require some kind of credential beyond high school. But that’s not all. With 47% of jobs likely to be automated in the coming years and 65% of GenZ jobs not even existing yet, the credential you earn today will clearly need to be stacked with new credentials of tomorrow. So what should guide your decision-making?

Affordability, of course, is a factor and you should do everything possible to understand the true cost of the credential you want, how you are going to pay for it, what available aid there might be, and whether, ultimately, the cost of the credential can be covered within a reasonable timeframe by the job you hope to land.  There are great resources available online to help you do that. For now, I want to focus on some other, perhaps less obvious, indicators of quality that you should also be aware of – namely trust and value. Both need to play a significant role in your decision-making because it’s important, as you design your educational pathway, to understand:

  1. The immediate value of the credential you seek. Key questions would include:
    • What specific skills and abilities will you gain as a result of the credential and how are they aligned with expectations and needs in the workforce?
    • How can you know employers and/or future educational institutions trust the credential being earned is valuable?
    • What kind of post-graduation outcomes are others enjoying who have previously earned the very same credential?

  2. The connectedness of the credential you seek. Key questions would include:
    • What evidence is there that “first-wave” credentials like certificates or certifications easily allow for transferability toward higher levels of future education or other types of institutions?

  3. The experience of earning the credential. Key questions would include:
    • Is there a commitment to “count” any relevant past credentials and prior learning brought to the table? How do they do it?
    • What 21st century educational practices are utilized?
    • What support services are provided to help you sustain the journey toward credential completion?

I work with students from all walks of life. As the change-makers continue their efforts to make the system better for you and for society as a whole, it’s incumbent that you play a role along the way to reform. Not every provider will have every answer – at least not yet – however they should all be able to talk value and they should have reasonable answers to the questions above. If they don’t, move on and don’t look back. There are plenty of other pathways to your success.

Sincerely, your advocate for a high-quality education for all,

Chris Flanagan

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