Two Reasons Higher Education Should Support the Evolution of the Learning and Employment Ecosystem

November 27, 2023
  • Comprehensive Record
  • Electronic Records and Document Exchange
  • Learning Mobility
  • Registration & Records
Illustration of an individual flying out of an open textbook.

By Rick Goldgar, Associate Partner, Digital Credentials, IBM, and Mark McConahay, Sr. Consultant and Digital Credential Coordinator, AACRAO

When higher education and industry align on skills, everyone wins. Learners achieve and demonstrate industry-needed skills, educators promote the value of their “brand” and back it with marketable outcomes (graduations, hires), and employers hire better-qualified employees and retain them longer. All stakeholders collaborate to create a virtuous cycle of improvement. 

Both the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO) and International Business Machines (IBM) are active in pursuing the development of an ecosystem that enables learners to communicate, with trust and confidence, their skills, competencies and learning to support their next career opportunities. The opportunities might present themselves academically via the pursuit of a credential from another institution or in the labor market. In either case, the ability to transmit trusted, verifiable credentials to reviewers with enough information embedded for recipients to discern how these skills translate into their specific contexts is, we believe, crucial for both sectors and for the learner, as we move into a more volatile future. We felt the combined subject matter knowledge of the two organizations might highlight the need for the learning and employment ecosystem, the challenges to adoption, and some recommendations for how to proceed. 

Below are two reasons Higher Education should support the evolution of the learning and employment ecosystem. Read the full report here.

Reason 1: Service to the Learner

In a world where the credential issuing organization aligns skills/competencies to the credential, the learner is able to provide trusted (not self-) assertions of those skills. Without the issuing organization anchor of trust, both the learner and potential employer must make assumptions about the relationship of the skills to the credentials, and this leaves room for bias and interpretation.

In the current Ecosystem, it is critical for job candidates to be able to articulate the specific skills and competencies requested by the employer. It is the only way to differentiate themselves and their higher-level achievements (e.g. degrees) from others competing for the same job. Providing their learners with an organized set of learning outcomes, skills and competencies associated with their program and their learning activities (e.g., courses, internships, research activities, etc.), arms them with a focused summary of their achievements and better prepares them for engagement with employers. 

Students with well-defined skills and competencies are also less likely to be subject to equity issues in hiring. Hiring based on achieved skills helps limit the institutional reputation effect of selecting only candidates from well-known schools on the assumption they are better qualified. In addition, skills-based hiring helps overcome the perceived lack of ROI of education by demonstrating the valuable skills achieved by students who have graduated from less expensive schools. 

Over a third of college undergraduates change majors. Over 61% of graduates would change their majors if they could go back. The education institution might be much more effective in helping students by using skill-based learning to help guide students in achieving their aspirational goal (workforce or advanced degree). Skill learning can particularly improve student counseling (with appropriate assessment and feedback models) for students in mid-course by demonstrating adjacency in skills already achieved through prior learning.

Reason 2: Service to the Institution

Assigning and aligning skills/competencies to courses and degrees can competitively differentiate the institution. As discussed above, employers are looking for personnel with specific skills, even if the employers vary greatly in how they describe those skills and have yet to adopt a systemic approach. Having higher education credentials that map to skills provides alumni an advantage with employers and thereby enhances the institution’s placement, recognition, and reputation. 

This also provides the institution with the ability to more closely collaborate with employers, which can result in employer funding of institution initiatives, internships for students, and the potential for non-traditional post-degree education program offerings by the institution, designed for employees and paid for by employers. 

To assist learners in their ability to assert their credentials, AACRAO is leading the movement to improve learning mobility. Improving learning mobility supports the learner’s institutional journey into and through post-secondary higher education into employment and lifelong learning. It is at the center of the work of the association’s members. Framing the whole of the work under one umbrella highlights the whole of the ecosystem and lays bare the opportunities for improvement. We see learning mobility as a Learner-Centered innovation, where systems, processes, programs, and initiatives must be designed around the needs and best interests of the learner of today and the future at every stage of their journey. All of our projects in this space embrace central themes and drivers:

  • AACRAO is working both nationally and internationally to increase Equitable Outcomes - All systems, processes, programs, and initiatives must enable educational, social, and economic mobility for people with varying abilities, preparation, and skills. This supports pathways to better employment opportunities and to further education and training. 

  • This necessitates a commitment to Interoperability & Open Standards - All technology must use open standards and common ontologies/frameworks to enable data to be machine-readable, exchangeable, and actionable across technology systems and, when appropriate, on the Web. It must support combinations of data from multiple sources, enable human interoperability, and be understood by people in different occupations and industries from diverse backgrounds.

  • When we do this well, we Strengthen the Value of Higher Education - In a knowledge-based economy where being highly skilled and experienced is a valuable currency for success and economic growth, education serves as an accelerant to credential attainment. Documenting and communicating that attainment is imperative and AACRAO members are critical to this work.

Since 1910, AACRAO has been at the forefront of managing and documenting learning - with registrars documenting learning and issuing its artifacts and admissions operations evaluating said artifacts. 

Using skills/competencies based mapping to courses can greatly simplify an institution's transfer and articulation process, providing incentives and assisting in creating timely credential pathways for students to transfer to the institution. Higher ed credentials that carried both disciplinary and professional learning outcomes, course descriptions, and additional information that would ease the task of placing the student’s course history into the accepting institution's curricular context. This approach can reduce effort and costs for the institution and also lead to greater student retention since the students can directly see the marketable skills value of their achievements and they can be more easily and correctly inserted into the institution’s academic program. 


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