SALT LAKE CITY — For Tanner Wheadon and Jacob Doetsch, college has hardly been about sitting in lecture halls and writing term papers year after year.
In fact, it feels very little like higher academia in a traditional sense.
But theirs is an experience that illustrates an innovative transformation happening at some institutions, one that recognizes specific skills with as much utility as an academic degree. It's a model that allows students to link their employment with their coursework, piece by piece.
Educators call it stackable credentials. Students call it building a resume.
"Having a degree just proves that you finished two years of school. It doesn't really demonstrate what you learned in school or if you're ready to apply it in a job," Doetsch said. "But if you prepare for certification exams through school, it doesn't just prove that I graduated with a two-year degree, but that I can actually do a specific job."
Doetsch is in his second semester at Salt Lake Community College, where he's working on an Associate in Applied Science degree in computer science information systems. Along the way, he's been able to earn industry-designed certifications in networking and database systems management.
"Just at the end of this term, only having been here two terms, I will have four industry certifications under my belt. And I'm not even done," he said. "I get to choose, study and practice the set of skills I want to present to future employers."
Those skill-specific certifications are becoming more essential in such a rapidly evolving tech industry where jobs are opening across the Wasatch Front. In light of the growing demand, the Utah State Board of Regents is requesting $10 million in new money from the Legislature this year to enhance programs that meet the need of Utah's economy.
At Utah Valley University, Wheadon has also found flexibility in the way he's allowed to complete his technology management degree. He's developed supplemental skills by earning a Microsoft dynamics certificate as well as participating in a university innovations fellowship out of Stanford University.
When combined with experience working for the university as a coach for startup companies, "It's not an insignificant add-on," Wheadon said.
"I think higher education has to go that way," he said. "I love the stackable degrees that they do here. I think it's one thing to graduate and say, 'I have a degree,' but to say, 'I have all these opportunities to engage in other projects,' that really sets you apart when you go in for that interview for a job."
The stackable credential model fits especially well for those who are already employed but looking for further opportunities. It allows them to enroll one course at a time, then "stack" each new certification or skill toward a raise, promotion or position in a new company.
This way, students can attend school at a pace they can afford and have time for, according to Rick Bouillon, dean of the School of Technical Specialties at Salt Lake Community College.
"It's not a linear model," Bouillon said. "A lot of people think a student will go get a certificate, then an associate, then a bachelor's, then a master's, and so on. Quite honestly, we have a number of students that come back to us for certificates that already have bachelor's degrees. They come back for skill enhancement."
The stackable credential model works most effectively in technical trades where specific certifications are needed, such as aerospace engineering, life sciences, manufacturing and computer technology.
But making it work for students and employers requires institutions to pay close attention to how industry needs change.
SLCC uses program advisory committees — teams of business leaders and college administrators — to design curriculum that aligns with high-demand positions and current technology. Some large companies or emerging industries can ask the college to develop training specific to them if there are specific skills needed over a longer term.
"It's incumbent upon the college, then, to say, 'OK, let us work through and design a class or design a curriculum that meets those needs," Bouillon said. "We try to be as nimble as we can. But at the same time, we have to make sure that whatever our credit offerings are that they fall within the guidelines of our accrediting body."
Bouillon said an institution's ability to respond to changes in the workforce depends largely on how extensively curriculum needs to be revised. Minor adjustments can be made fairly easily, but if more than 25 percent of a course's curriculum is modified, there's an accreditation process to follow.
A similar process exists for entirely new classes, and the time it takes for an institution to begin offering new content also depends on whether those classes are credit- or competency-based.
In addition to designing new classes, college leaders are focusing on bringing existing courses and degrees more in line with each other. This includes allowing courses, certificates and degrees to stack toward a higher degree, avoiding what institution leaders call "dead-end credits" that don't count toward graduation.
"It's something that we are stressing," said Jeffery Olson, senior vice president of academic affairs at UVU.
As a result of that effort, all 33 technical certificates offered at UVU are at least 80 percent compatible with an associate degree, Olson said. Roughly half of the university's associate degrees are 100 percent compatible with some bachelor's program. About one-quarter of them are at least 80 percent compatible with a bachelor's program, and the other quarter are less than 80 percent compatible but still contribute "substantially" to a higher degree, he said.
Even though UVU is now the largest institution in Utah in terms of enrollment, it still maintains a dual mission as both a four-year institution and a community college. This allows the university to continue to expand its focus on stackable credentials, something that isn't always compatible with research institutions, such as the University of Utah and Utah State University.
Still, the urge to become a research institution and adopt a new academic mission is a "big challenge" for nonresearch institutions, Olson said. But such transformations usually include higher tuition rates and other barriers to admission, which would prove especially prohibitive to student populations that benefit from the stackable model.
"There is within higher education this tremendous pull toward wanting to be a research university, like Harvard. And what we're describing is not exactly the kind of thing Harvard focuses on," Olson said. "So we do have to be vigilant that we really keep focused on our mission of addressing the educational needs of the people of our service area."
Making a difference
The need for a qualified labor pool is projected to become even more pronounced in Utah, especially in technology fields and with the recent assignment for Hill Air Force Base to perform maintenance and upgrades on the F-22 and F-35 jets, a 40-year workload or more.
In a combined survey with the Governor's Office of Economic Development, the Utah Department of Workforce Services and Weber State University, 49 Utah employers, including Hill Air Force Base, provided five-year projection data for technology, aerospace and defense, life sciences, and advanced manufacturing.
Those 49 companies will need to fill an estimated 39,000 new jobs over the next five years. And by 2050, Utah's population is expected to double, creating even greater demand for family sustaining jobs.
It all makes for a "generational shift" in industry and economy, as well as a challenge for higher education, according to Ogden Republican Sen. Ann Millner, a former president of Weber State University.
"There are jobs in five years that we don't even know about today, and in order to meet those needs, we've got to learn along the way as well," Millner said. "I think we have got to get much more nimble. We've got to build stackable credentials that allow us to build and look at this continuum of jobs."
On a smaller, more immediate scale, the stackable credentials approach to higher education is producing success for students and their families. And part of that success is in overcoming a perception that often equates college with no less than a four-year degree, according to Olson.
"We have to encourage them," he said. "For some students, particularly from first-generation college families, a bachelor's degree is a pretty daunting prospect. But a 30-credit certificate program, that's a doable thing. That gives them hope to take the next step."
And whether a student is entering college in preparation for a career or coming back to enhance their skills, institutions play a key role in ensuring their completion by giving them recognition for their achievements along the way, not just at the end of a degree, Bouillon said.
"It does give them momentum, but it also gives them incremental success," he said. "If a student has success, they're more likely to continue, and their continuation is going to be driven by the need at the time and their ability to persist.
"I think that's where stackable credentials really help them."