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How a Degree Ladder Can Help Students Navigate the Complex Maze of College Courses

Some researchers are pushing to better guide students through the bewildering array of courses on offer at most community colleges.

In the first six months of 2017, over 130,000 men and women sat for the NCLEX-RN—the national standardized nursing exam that every nursing student must pass in order to officially become a registered nurse. All of those candidates must also have completed an accredited nursing program before sitting for the exam, but there are many different pathways to reach the exam: Some graduated from high school and immediately entered a Bachelor of Science in Nursing program at a four-year college or university; others earned a bachelor's degree in something else entirely, and then returned to school for a one- to two-year accelerated BSN degree; still others finished high school and then continued on for an Associate of Science in Nursing (ADN) at a two-year community college or career college. And some of those nursing candidates will have done things a little differently—taking courses over the course of many years, earning intermediate credentials or certificates as they go, pausing at various points to work for a while and accumulate some savings before finally completing an ADN or BSN.

In recent years, the epidemic of student debt and non-completion among students at non-selective colleges has led many policymakers and researchers to ask whether it's time to rethink the traditional four-year college model. Maybe, these researchers have reasoned, not every student should be expected to graduate high school and dedicate the next four years of their lives, uninterrupted, to acquiring a bachelor's degree.

When CareerAdvance, the two-generation anti-poverty program in Tulsa, Oklahoma, that I wrote about for the latest print issue of Pacific Standard, first launched back in 2009, the program's designers imagined that participants would progress along a multi-year career pathway. They would first earn a certified nursing assistant credential (which was projected to take about five weeks), followed by a licensed practical nurse (LPN) credential (projected to take an additional year), before finally completing an associate's degree in nursing (a three-year time commitment) and sitting for the exam.


CAP Tulsa, the organization that runs CareerAdvance, quickly identified a major problem with this approach: The full sequence took longer than anticipated and their participants, all low-income parents of young children, were unable or unwilling to commit to going to school continuously for years on end.

"So many people were coming in that needed remedial education, that had been out of school for awhile, or that this was their second attempt at college and they hadn't had a great experience the first time," says Janae Bradford, the manager of family advancement for CareerAdvance. CAP Tulsa decided to change its approach, re-designing the program to focus on credentials that can be obtained more quickly yet still have labor market value. Gone are the days of participants planning for four years of schooling culminating in an ADN; instead, parents sign up for a variety of certificates, almost all of which can be completed in under a year. Participants can still progress, if they choose, up a ladder of health-care certifications that "stack" on top of each other and culminate in the LPN credential, but CareerAdvance no longer funds participants beyond the LPN credential.

While the CareerAdvance program focuses primarily on health-care pathways, the stackable credentials concept exists in other fields as well. In sociologist Jim Rosenbaum's new book on improving outcomes for college students at non-selective schools, Bridging the Gaps, he details the need for "degree ladders" that can clearly guide students through the bewildering array of courses on offer at most community colleges. Here, for example, is a degree ladder map in the health information technology field that Rosenbaum and his co-authors compiled from a course catalog at a community college:

Jim Rosenbaum's degree ladder.

Jim Rosenbaum's degree ladder.

The map above contains a number of important insights that would be difficult for students to figure out on their own from a course catalog. It tells them that different credentials—the medical billing certificate and the medical coding certificate, for example—can be stacked upon each other to form the bottom rungs of a clear career ladder. And it tells them that a medical billing certificate not only qualifies them for a job paying better than minimum wage, but can also serve as the building block for an associate's degree in health information technology.

Here's how Rosenbaum and his co-authors describe the advantages of a degree ladder map:

Without limiting students' possibilities, degree ladder maps reduce their anxiety around decision-making by grouping similar majors together and showing how they can move between them and into employment. Instead of pondering isolated credentials that may or may not be dead-end, students can see pathways between credentials. Instead of picking one credential and program, students can see how credentials relate to one another and provide opportunities for advancement. In this way, degree ladder maps organize sequences of choices.... Besides showing that picking a program does not commit a student to a lifelong decision, degree ladder maps bring order to what is otherwise a bewildering set of options that seem indistinguishable from one another. These maps benefit students by imposing a visible order and structure on college offerings.

It's easy to imagine just how useful such a map would be for a high school senior who is interested in health information technology but isn't sure they want, or can afford, to immediately pursue an uninterrupted four-year bachelor's degree. Yet despite the obvious advantages of such a map, few high school seniors will ever see one and it's hard to imagine any 18-year-old having the wherewithal to construct such a map for themselves. In fact, it took Rosenbaum and his colleagues hours of analysis of course catalogs and labor market information and many interviews with college faculty, to generate the map above, as well as an accompanying (not shown) "course checklist" detailing precisely which courses are required for each credential. And individual counselors at community colleges, who may be tasked with advising upwards of 1,000 students at any given time across many different programs, usually lack the time and field-specific knowledge that would be required to construct such a map.

Programs like CareerAdvance take the guesswork out of post-secondary education, while also giving students the option of taking breaks from school as needed, by laying out a clear pathway and career ladder. But, as Rosenbaum's degree ladder map demonstrates, community colleges in many cases actually already offer similar pathways. Too bad no one knows about them.