Where credit is due

Photo: AACC

At a time when many students and families are increasingly questioning the cost and value of traditional four-year college degrees, attaining milestones based on stackable credentials has received more attention as a viable way to prepare students for the workforce. Particularly at community colleges, where students may or may not matriculate to a four-year institution, it’s critical that every course contributes to a student’s progression along their career path. 

Unfortunately, community colleges don’t always know when students complete a stackable credential, which makes it difficult to advise them toward completion of all relevant degrees or certifications along the way. Generally, community colleges have lighter staffing and technology resources to determine these achievements, and students can miss opportunities as a result. However, at Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana (Ivy Tech), we wanted to make sure our students were being recognized with the appropriate degrees and certifications when they met the requirements. 

Ivy Tech is Indiana’s largest public postsecondary institution and the nation’s largest singly accredited statewide community college system. We serve nearly 100,000 students annually, plus an additional 60,000 dual-credit students, with approximately 3,500 full-time staff and faculty at more than nearly 40 locations and online, throughout the state. These numbers are on par with traditional four-year colleges. Ivy Tech acts as an engine of workforce development, offering affordable degree programs and training that are aligned with the needs of its communities. 

Our challenge at Ivy Tech

After running individual reports, our administration realized many students were completing courses that qualified for certificates, but didn’t have the ability to methodically match completions with all possible credentials as they were making progress. For example, if a student was on track to earn an associate degree in business, they might have also completed enough coursework to earn a technical certificate, but the student didn’t know it and we weren’t able to detect it either. 

As a community college, we also see students experience interruptions in their education due to financial or personal circumstances. Being able to recognize stacked credentials in real-time could give students extra motivation to finish a program, or still give them a workplace boost without attaining a full degree. 

Similarly, we serve a large population of first-generation, non-traditional students. Many of them have had difficult educational roads, and an interim credential or certification might be the first time they’ve been recognized for an educational achievement. An early win could help propel them toward longer-term success.

Additionally, Ivy Tech partners with four-year institutions to ensure transfer credits are articulated toward bachelor’s degrees, but if the student transferred back we didn’t have a way to translate course credits to Ivy Tech degrees or certifications. This is especially important now as the COVID-19 pandemic has caused many students to rethink attendance at institutions further from home.

We needed a solution that we could apply across the entire student body with limited resources in our registrars’ offices. Although individual registrars were able to run one-off reports and then grant certificates to qualified students, there was no system in place to do this consistently or to scale.

Systematically capturing student completions 

With limited personnel and a large student body, we knew that technology would be our only option for accomplishing our goals. By the end of our project, we wanted to have run the completions of all past and present students against every permutation of our degrees and certifications. But, our starting point had to be more modest. 

At the end of the 2016-2017 academic year, Ivy Tech partnered with CollegeSource to develop a toolset and process to leverage the uAchieve Degree Audit to systematically identify along-the-way completions. This enabled us to accomplish our first step in a realistic timeframe – approximately seven days to run currently enrolled students against every curricula in our inventory. 

The initial results were impressive and allowed Ivy Tech to increase our credential production for the last three academic years. In the 2018-2019 academic year, 28,245 credentials were awarded, exceeding the amount from the 2015-2016 academic year by 29 percent, despite a decline in enrollment of over 8,000 students during the same period. 

We also use CollegeSource to systematically evaluate students for degree completion in addition to stackable credentials. This allows us to proactively advise students on what they need to finish their declared majors, and identify potential majors the student might qualify for, but hasn’t declared. 

This can have a dramatic impact on a student’s value in the workforce. Knowing which electives overlap with other credentials gives students the opportunity to select those courses more strategically in a way that makes them more employable. For those students who may need an “off ramp” from their education, the completion of a short-term certificate or certification may land them in a better-paying job and serve them in good stead until they can resume formal coursework. 

Rewarding returning transfer students

We know that students regularly transfer to and from Ivy Tech from other institutions. For our reverse transfer initiative, we also use a CollegeSource solution to track and manage course equivalencies with our partner institutions. We can quickly evaluate a returning student’s transcript and, based on their completions, convey information about which degree they are close to earning at Ivy Tech.

Adopting the equivalency manager features of TES has allowed us to take an unbiased approach to evaluating equivalencies. Rather than having faculty evaluate whether a transfer request applies to their program, we now have a rules-based system that ensures a consistent and accurate experience. Faculty are able to focus more on advising transfer students knowing that their admission has been fairly reviewed. 

Of course, faculty are still involved with determining the equivalences that are loaded into the system. We have a statewide panel of reviewers who regularly examine the courses across our partner institutions, and there is a process to handle objections. Now, the one-off work of establishing a transfer student’s equivalencies has been automated. 

Making the grade

Ivy Tech has been able to effectively use technology to increase the level of service we provide our students without increasing the size of our registrar staff. We’ve increased our credential production level and are on track to award 50,000 credentials per year. Our students have earned these degrees and certifications, and now we can meaningfully recognize their accomplishments.

About the Author

Drew Lurker
is director of student records at Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana.
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