Illumination by Modern Campus

Constance St. Germain (Capella University) on Embracing Competency-Based Education and Credit Recognition

May 30, 2024 Modern Campus
Constance St. Germain (Capella University) on Embracing Competency-Based Education and Credit Recognition
Illumination by Modern Campus
More Info
Illumination by Modern Campus
Constance St. Germain (Capella University) on Embracing Competency-Based Education and Credit Recognition
May 30, 2024
Modern Campus

On today’s episode of the Illumination by Modern Campus podcast, podcast host Shauna Cox was joined by Constance St. Germain to discuss the importance of acknowledging and accommodating non-traditional learning experiences in higher ed. 

Show Notes Transcript

On today’s episode of the Illumination by Modern Campus podcast, podcast host Shauna Cox was joined by Constance St. Germain to discuss the importance of acknowledging and accommodating non-traditional learning experiences in higher ed. 

Welcome to Illumination by Modern Campus, the leading podcast focused on transformation and change in the higher education space. On today’s episode, we speak with Constance St. Germain, who is president of Capella University. Constance and podcast host Shauna Cox, discuss the importance of acknowledging and accommodating non-traditional learning experiences in higher ed. 

Shauna Cox (00:03):Welcome to the Illumination Podcast. It's great to be chatting with you today.

Constance St. Germain (00:07):Thanks for having me, Sean. I'm super excited.

Shauna Cox (00:09):Absolutely. So I just want to kick off our conversation in terms of we're here to talk about credit for prior learning. Today's demographics, a lot of them are not the traditional age student. Most of them are adult learners or are looking to go beyond a traditional degree and things like that. And essentially what I've been seeing and hearing is that a lot of adults are coming back to the institution to either pick up some credentials or things like that, but not always will their experience be recognized by an institution. And that can definitely compose a challenge. So to kick off our conversation here, why is it important for higher ed leaders to prioritize non-traditional learning experience and provide an increased recognition for them?

Constance St. Germain (01:04):That's a great question, Shauna, and you hit the nail on the head when you said there's an increase in non-traditional students coming back. One of the things that we've seen across higher education whole is there's actually been quite a demographic shift. So the 18 to 24-year-old population, which has historically been referred to as traditional learners, is actually now in the minority. And what we're seeing is that people going back to college to pursue higher education are actually trending to be quite older. And a lot of this has to do with the fact of how expensive higher education has become. So institutions when they're really looking at prioritizing the needs of those students that are coming back and thinking about things like credit for prior learning, there are a couple of things that come into play. One has to do really about access and equity. So think about the adult student they work.

(01:58):Some of them might be parents, for example. They might be in an area where there's remote, where they may not have access to a higher education. So they need to think about that. They also, institutions should think about how really recognizing the work experience not only helps them better to align to industry needs, which is really important because now it's not like you just have a degree. Today's workforce actually requires you to have a very diverse skillset. You need to be well-versed in multiple things. And so there's no one-stop shop where you get all that type of learning going together. But it's also a strategic imperative in terms of for institutions when they're thinking about recognizing that learning because the higher education landscape is getting quite competitive. And if they want to make sure that they're out there capturing these students who are looking to go back as working adults, that they are ready and available to catch them. And then lastly, I'd probably say lifelong learning is always a really big thing. And if we want to promote people, whether it's upskilling or re-skilling, all of that, we need to recognize that learning and the experience that they bring. So that's what I would say.

Shauna Cox (03:16):Absolutely. And with this increase of the non-traditional learner, I think it's really key here to understand who that audience is exactly. Because outside a CE unit, an institution may not be used to this type of demographic and their needs and how to serve them correctly in a way that's going to fulfill their educational journey. So I kind of want to deep dive into the learner themselves and talk about what are the lesser known challenges that non-traditional learners face that higher ed might not be fully aware of.

Constance St. Germain (03:50):Sure. So when they come back, I mentioned this earlier, a lot of them are working full time, which means that they have time management, they have scheduling conflicts, especially if they're working parents. So it's not like, oh, they're working and they have children. They have a lot of stuff going on in their lives. And our current structure within higher education isn't really set up to be conducive in that sense, the way it's currently structured. I will just say that briefly, that's one of the things at Capella that we do really well is because actually offer lower competency based offering that education. And so we offer two formats of it. One is what we call guided path, which is more of a guided traditional competency-based format. And the other one is direct assessment, which it allows a student to come and really proceed at their own pace.

(04:40):So it's untethered from the credit hour so they can move as fast as slow as they want. And a lot of that has to do with the fact that Capella was actually founded for adult learners recognizing that they had all these obstacles in their life. I think the other thing that traditional institutions don't understand, a couple of things. One, they have additional financial burdens on them outside of the 18 to 24-year-old group. They probably have to pay rent, they may have childcare, all those additional expenses that come in beyond tuition. And then I think they also deal a lot with social isolation. So for institutions trying to support that social isolation, imagine you don't have much of a life if you are working full time taking care of kids and then trying to go to school in the evening. And traditional institutions aren't set up like that.

(05:34):And then I'd probably say the last one really has to do with just the academic preparedness and the ability to navigate higher ed. I think if you just pulled your average 18 to 24-year-old off the street, or I should say off the college campus that they're attending now and asked them, how are you doing? How did you find your way? The registrar, they probably couldn't even tell you what a bursar was, right? They didn't learn all that language until they came here. And since many of these students are coming from underrepresented populations for them, it's even harder to get into that space. So those are some of the obstacles that they really need to sit down and figure out is this something that we can address moving forward?

Shauna Cox (06:22):Absolutely. I want to touch on a point that you just were talking about here in terms of the institution. Obviously not all of them, especially Capella was set up for the adult learner, but more of the traditional institutions I would say, not set up for this type of success for this type of learner. So from that institutional standpoint, what are some of the obstacles to meet these new and evolving needs for a non-traditional learner?

Constance St. Germain (06:48):Some of it has to do with technology. People have very different expectations in terms of what they want their experience to look like. Even with the rise of AI recently, it's like it's evolving so fast and a lot of traditional institutions, their infrastructure isn't set up to support that. The other thing that they have to work their way through as well is I would really call it more around attitudes and culture within their own campuses. And what I mean by that is a lot of institutions, and I'm making an overt generalization here, but they weren't founded to serve an adult learner. They were founded to serve that 18 to 24-year-old group. And so that's what the faculty and the culture has really been geared around. Very faculty centric to 18, very patriarchal almost in that sense. Where they think are in parental locus is what they used to call it in higher education, where they're standing in place of the parents.

(07:55):So they're raising these 18 to 24 year olds. Well, when you're 32, you don't need that type. It's a different type of support that you need. And so I think those are some really big things. I would also say resource allocation, a lot of challenges there around resource allocation, especially if you have a big campus and the infrastructure and the infrastructure is aging, you just have different needs that you have to put your allocation to. And it's not necessarily towards the adult student that's coming back. You're trying to figure out how facilities is going to fix the boiler in a building that people are living in. And so it's just not high on your priority. And then a lot of institutional policies, this goes back to the cultural thing I was just talking about. The institutional policies were all set up that reflect really almost 50 years ago, I'd say now you're talking about seventies and eighties, when adults didn't go back to school to do that, really very few of them went back and finished their degree. Or if they did, they went to night school and it was all in person and it was synchronous and didn't have a great success rate going forward. So I would say just some of those cultural and attitudinal and monetary challenges are probably the biggest obstacles that they're having to overcome and meeting the needs.

Shauna Cox (09:22):Absolutely. And overcoming those obstacles can't happen overnight, especially when you're sitting on such long tradition and everything like that and such strong foundation from that traditional landscape. So of course we can't solve this again overnight, but how can institutions start implementing some solutions to address some of the challenges that you were highlighting in order to start serving the more non-traditional learner?

Constance St. Germain (09:50):So I think a lot of institutions, one of the things that they could do is really trying to meet the learner where the student, where they're at. So where are they coming in from? What are they bringing with them to the table? You cannot treat a 3-year-old as the same as you would treat an 18-year-old right? Coming in, especially if the 3-year-old has already been in the workforce for over a decade. So they're bringing in a really set of unique experiences with them. And I think that plays a huge role in what institutions should be thinking about in the support that they're providing. So I think integrating competency-based education as well is really something that they should look at doing because what's showing is you're not just taking something to a test. It's not about rote memorization of a topic. It's actually taking the learning and applying it to real world scenarios.

(10:47):So you would say, oh, if this happened in my workspace, this is how I would react to it. This is how I would respond to it. And that's really how competency-based education helps measure things with it. So those are just some of the things that I would say that institutions can do to make sure that they're ready to work with adult learners going forward. And that's something that we do here at Capella every single day. So the average age of our student here is 37 years old, so a very different population. They're bringing in a lot of these adult students. This is not the first time that they've gone back to school, even in traditional higher education. It's not the first time they've gone back to school. They have tried numerous times. And so they have a lot of transfer credits from a lot of different institutions. And so it's not only recognizing that credit for prior learning, but it's also about accepting transfer credits as well from different institutions to make sure that they're successful and allowed to bring those in.

Shauna Cox (11:49):Absolutely. And I'd love to expand on that with the whole credit recognition of these experiences from these students and of course including the transfer credits. What impact does that recognition of these non-traditional learning experiences such as CPL have on the student engagement and overall success?

Constance St. Germain (12:13):So what we know to be true, and this is actually shown in the literature, is that people who have transfer credit or who have credit for prior learning credit, their chances of going on and succeeding and completing their degree improve exponentially then somebody who brings in nothing because you feel like you're already invested when you're bringing it in. So we know that credit for prior learning not only accelerates the time it takes to complete a degree when they're bringing that in. So if you've already been in business for 10 years, do you need to go back and take business 1 0 1 if you can already prove that you have these business skills, helps reduce costs? So we're always talking about how expensive a college education is, and obviously it improves student outcomes because they already, they've earned some credit, so they're going faster towards their degree, they're saving money and they're more likely to persist.

(13:07):So it's really helpful overall. I mean, we had some data just at Capella over a three year period from 2019 to 2022 that showed that 10% of all new Capella students who came in at the undergraduate level had some type of credit for prior learning. And I think in total, it was like 98,000 credits were actually applied towards degrees. So just from the 10% that were coming in, and this is really important, particularly with underrepresented populations, they come in, we want to make sure that they're succeeding, that they're having the opportunity to improve their socioeconomic status of not only themselves, but also for their future families. And we want to make sure that they have a great experience with that. And so one of the things that we saw in this increase as well is it wasn't just white learners who were benefiting from this, but in that three year period, we actually saw a 600 basis point increase in underrepresented populations in terms of the application of credit for prior learning to the undergraduate degrees. And most of them go into business, right, believe it or not. So I mean, it makes sense because they've been out there in the business world doing that.

Shauna Cox (14:31):Absolutely. That's amazing to hear. And obviously you guys have been doing this for a while now and understand the adult learner and the credit for prior learning. What trends do you anticipate in that area of CPL within higher ed?

Constance St. Germain (14:51):Well, there was a witchy brief that was when they were doing a survey. What they found was like eight out of 10 institutions except some type of credit for prior learning. But it's one of those areas that's just not well known and it's not well advertised. And so I see a trend that institutions will begin to actually talk about it and make it easier for students coming in to apply for credit for prior learning. Now, you can get credit for prior learning through a variety of ways. So whether it's through you were in the military and you took trainings, or maybe you have a certificate like from it, you took a c plus plus class or you've done some type of corporate training. So I think the expansion of eligible experiences, we will see that will be a big trend. I also think that we're going to see an increase in transparency and standardization, because right now, you either can put together a portfolio, you either have some type of recognized training that you can come through, you can take an assessment, like a written assessment with that, or maybe you've taken an AP course if you were in high school, you can transfer that in.

(16:08):So I'm hoping that we'll see a continued expansion in those areas as well. And collaboration with industry. I think that is going to be a big trend as well, where industry is going to say, if you've done this, we recognize this as experience. So I think that, and that's really key, right? In higher education to making sure that you're so connected in that space. We have, oh gosh, we have over 800 employer partners here at Capella who allow their employees to use their tuition benefits to come here. And one of the things that we've seen at least here, is that FlexPath and credit for prior learning is immensely popular with them. And it's a win-win for everybody because they've got, the employers are getting able to use their tuition benefits. They're giving a great benefit to their employees, but at the same time, the employee is also upskilling or reskilling, right? And they're getting a degree out of it. So it's a win-win for everybody in that process.

Shauna Cox (17:15):Absolutely. That's amazing. Well, Constance, that's everything that we have for you. But before I let you go, we're going to need a restaurant recommendation from you. So you are based in Minneapolis, and we would love to know if someone's coming to town, where do they have to go?

Constance St. Germain (17:33):

So I would say if somebody is coming to town, there's a great little French bistro in Uptown called Barts, and I highly recommend it. The food is absolutely phenomenal, and the drinks are wonderful as well. So it's a nice, cozy, small, a little place right on a corner in Uptown, and it's fabulous. So if you're coming to Minneapolis, go to uptown, go to Barts in uptown, and you'll have a great evening.

Shauna Cox (18:02):Awesome. Amazing. Thank you so much, Constance. It was great chatting with you.

Constance St. Germain (18:06):Thank you so much for having me, Sean.