An Educated Guest

S2 E4 | Traversing the Education-Workforce Continuum

Guest: Rick Torres, President and CEO, National Student Clearinghouse

Imagine a future where learners can instantly verify their skills, credentials, and employment. Thanks to the National Student Clearinghouse, this future is already becoming a reality.

In this episode of An Educated Guest, Todd Zipper, EVP and GM of Wiley University Services and Talent Development, welcomes Rick Torres, President and CEO of the National Student Clearinghouse. They discuss topics such as the “K-20 to workforce continuum”, the top factors accelerating enrollment declines, and how a “point of no return” now requires higher ed to pivot for good.

Key Takeaways:

  • How the Clearinghouse is evolving paper transcripts into a digital credentials wallet
  • How the credentials ecosystem is becoming less of a “wild west”
  • Why employers have been upskilling talent in-house and how higher ed institutions can help
  • Understanding recent enrollment declines via the community college sector
  • Why universities, states, and federal policy makers must work in tandem to track education and job outcomes

Guest Bio

Rick Torres joined the National Student Clearinghouse as President and CEO in 2008. Under his leadership, the Clearinghouse has provided access-driven educational reporting, data exchange, verification, and research services to help learners, institutions, and organizations maximize human potential across the “K-20 to workforce continuum.”

Rick currently serves as a board member of the John Tyler Community College Foundation and Achieving the Dream. He is also a founding member of the Groningen Declaration Network Group, a multinational group of leaders dedicated to developing a trusted international data exchange ecosystem. Rick holds an MBA in international finance from Georgetown University and undergraduate degrees in both marketing and management from Manhattan College.

Podcast Transcript

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Speaker 1:

You’re listening to An Educated Guest, a podcast that brings together great minds in higher ed to delve deeper into the innovations and trends guiding the future of education and careers. Hosted by the Executive Vice President and GM of Wiley University Services and Talent Development, Todd Zipper.

Todd Zipper:

Hello, I am Todd Zipper, host of An Educated Guest on today’s show. I speak with Rick Torres, president and CEO of National Student Clearinghouse since 2008. Under his leadership, the Clearinghouse has provided access-driven educational reporting, data exchange, verification and research services helping learners, institutions and organizations maximize human potential across the K through 20 to workforce continuum.

The key takeaways from our discussion today, first, how the Clearinghouse is evolving paper transcripts to a digital, validated education to workforce credentials wallet. Second, how the credentials ecosystem is evolving quality from the Wild West to a standardized, baseline system. Third, why employers have increasingly been upskilling talent themselves and how higher ed institutions can join back in. Fourth, the important story the community college sector has to tell about recent enrollment declines. And fifth, how universities, states and federal policy must work in tandem to accurately track education and job outcomes. Hello, Rick. Thank you for being here today on An Educated Guest.

Rick Torres:

My pleasure. Nice to be with you.

Todd Zipper:

All right. The National Student Clearinghouse is known for publishing data on enrollment student outcomes and more. I’m personally excited to talk numbers with you today, but before we get into all that, let’s talk about the National Student Clearinghouse broadly. Give us a high level overview of the history and the impacts of the National Student Clearinghouse has had to date.

Rick Torres:

Well Todd, first, again, thank you for having me on. The Clearinghouse is a nonprofit that was set up over 29 years ago actually by the higher education industry. Over its 29 years, it’s really evolved a set of services in support of not only higher education, but K-20 overall. We work with schools that enroll over 98% of the post-secondary enrollment of the country. We also work directly with over 19,000 high schools and with every single state, also the federal government, with respect to looking at having access to verified education data and helping these schools perform research, but also in the case of higher education, transactions related to federal reporting tied to student loans.

We are a school official, so we have been designated as an agent of these institutions and because of that, we provide many services on their behalf. And this includes things like compliance reporting, verification-related services. If you hire someone that says they have a degree from such and such university, chances are that degree is getting confirmed via the National Student Clearinghouse.

But what it also allows for in a broader context, is to be able to have institutions and states actually begin to understand what works and what doesn’t work in education. So, we have a lot of research-related services that we provide, and many of it for free to these institutions, that help them become better equipped to support the journeys of students through understanding what’s actually happening at the line of scrimmage and what are some of the factors that correlate to successes and also people, for example, who are stopping out. So, we’re very deeply involved in this evolution that’s happening in education right now. But the Clearinghouse, really think of it as a national asset to the education workforce ecosystem in the United States.

Todd Zipper:

One of the areas that caught my attention on your website was that you serve the education workforce continuum. Can you tell us more about this scope, including the kinds of institutions you help and the products that you serve around this area?

Rick Torres:

Yeah, so what’s happening now is that there is a lot more emphasis. I would say, let’s pull up a little bit and talk about the education workforce continuum and why that matters and why it’s front and center in what we talk about in our website. And that’s because what you have happening in education right now is a big evolution and frankly, it’s in some cases a revolution. And that is that, historically, the education, higher education environment in particular, was being measured on a set of metrics tied around a completion of a degree. And while that is still very, very important and something that for people that want to go in and get the degree, it’s important that you go get it. There’s also this other narrative now that has evolved that says, “Okay, now what is it that you can do with that degree and how does that tie into the workforce?”

So, the Clearinghouse, in support of all of our education institutions that I mentioned a little bit earlier, is looking to develop platforms and services that can help these institutions better tie their delivery of education to learning outcomes, to eventual jobs that learners will get. And you have to look at this also beyond just traditional learners. Everybody always thinks of a learner. “Well, it’s the kid coming out of high school who then enrolls and then continues and then completes,” Well, that’s just one group. You have adult learners that come back. You have people that enroll for the first time who are 24, 25, 26 years old, and they are all part of this greater ecosystem that is education and workforce.

I think when you begin to look at that market and education and workforce in general and that continuum, what’s also happening is that there’s this linkage between verifying and being able to prove out that you’ve earned certain skills and you can do certain things, to then moving that into the next part of your transition. I guess, Todd, this is where it gets interesting because if you think about … If you pull up and you think about the transitions that are happening, so the Clearinghouse’s services need to evolve to support what I’m about to describe, and we are evolving to support it.

So, what you have in your life, if you think about it, you have four basic sets of transitions. You go school to school, high school to high school, high school to post-secondary, or post-secondary A to post-secondary B, community college to four year school. Those are all school to school types of transitions. And then you go school to work. That could be in the form of an apprenticeship, it could be in the form of actually getting a job coming out of school. It could be getting some training at school and then getting a job. And then you have job to job, so you have business to business types of transitions. And then you have business back to school. So, in some cases, you’re getting on the job training, then you have to go back to school of some form, and that school could be at the actual employer or it could be in an academic institution to refine skill sets.

And what’s happening here is that the education workforce continuum is a representation of the baton passing that has to happen at these different transitional stages. So, if we think about it, you pick up a skill in a certain part of these transitions and you got to be able to move it from one environment into the next and grow it, and be able to verifiably grow that skillset. And the whole idea of grouping this together is to understand that it is a continuum. It’s an ever-present evolution that’s happening in your own skill development, that needs to be part of the conversation of how higher education and frankly, K12, looks at their roles in preparing learners for that journey and that journey between education and workforce. I know that’s a mouthful, but this is what’s going on out there right now.

Todd Zipper:

And so, how do you bring in some of the existing services? So, I think about the big transcript service that you guys offer. And just thinking about this continuum, you are this digital footprint as you go from high school with certain skills and like you said, various aspects of college, in and out of the workforce. Are you going to be this transcript that will evolve in some form or fashion? Are you thinking about that as a service around this?

Rick Torres:

Yeah, well, so there’s lots of evolutions happening right now, Todd. So, first of all, it has been very clear in higher education, for example, for a while here that the transcript as we know it, the basic generic transcript that there’s a standard wrapped around, is insufficient to really reflect holistically the learning that’s happening in a higher education institution, just to put that out there. And so now, there’s a lot of work … There are standards around this concept called a comprehensive learner record, which entities like the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, are actually really encouraging schools to take a look at as a way to better reflect more holistically the learning that’s happening at an institution. That’s a big, big step for a lot of schools, to step into this broader definition. But that in my opinion, is a starting step.

The bigger picture is the learning and employment record. And that more holistically reflects learning that happens, both in an academic environment but also in a workforce environment, of which the comprehensive learning record is a sub-part of that. So, the transcript by default is going to go through this evolution. And with the advent of student self-sovereignty and digital wallets and things along those lines, what’s going to happen is that interestingly, a learner will be able to curate their learning from verified transcript information. So, let’s break that down into a couple of pieces.

There’ll be the higher education component. A school will produce a traditional transcript. “Here’s the courses you took, here’s the grades you received, here’s the explanations.” But it’ll have a comprehensive piece to it that could include, verifiably, “I was the president of this club, I did this, and these are some of the leadership activities that I participated in and I was the … ” Whatever those claims are, you’ll be able to validate those as well, for example, as part of your description of who you are as a person, as you self-identify, and then have that validated. But then being able to incorporate workforce issued credentials is really important too.

So, as you begin to look at your own ability to present yourself to a potential employer or to further your education, you’re able to present yourself in a way that is through validated documents curated and being able to move that conversation forward. But it is a sea change, from what people think about today as a transcript. So the transcript today has a very simple function in my opinion, and that is to … it works for transfer. So, if you want to transfer from one school to another, it is an academic record, It has the detail, it has the richness that’s needed to do an evaluation of transfer of credit, which is well and good, but it is really lacking in its ability to completely provide a learner’s ability to explain who they are, what they know, and what they can do to a potential employer, for example.

Todd Zipper:

This idea of this portfolio is tremendous. It’s this multidimensional aspect versus, “Hey, I’ve just taken these 32 courses in my bachelor’s degree and this is the grades I got,” and that’s all that you give your future employer or the next school you’re applying to. This is way more complex and hopefully helpful in an employer evaluating you. How are you thinking about this burgeoning movement around alternative credentials that aren’t necessarily a transcript, but you can say, “Hey, I got a badge in this data science thing, or my employer gave me some educational credential around something.” How do you see that? Because it just seems like this just opens ourselves up to a massive amount of opportunities, but could be also the quality assurance of all of it is a little bit complicated right now.

Rick Torres:

Well, I think, yes, and I think any other … So, this is a conversation I have quite often around the quality question. And I think the market ends up sussing that out at the end of the day. From the Clearinghouse’s standpoint, if there is a claimed artifact that you’ve earned and it’s validated that you’ve earned it, you’ve earned it, you’ve got this, it’s your artifact, whatever it is. How the market and how another school, or how an industry, or a business person looks at that credential is really going to be through the test of time. And Todd, it’s really interesting because when I talk to people about this, I try to let them understand that, even though there’s a lot of accredited degrees and credentials out there, and we have accrediting agencies, we have regional accreditors, we also have program accreditors, all of that, and it’s all validated. There’s a wide continuum of what I would call people’s perceptions of the quality of education that happens.

If somebody went to Rick Torres College with a math degree and someone came out of MIT with a math degree and I’m an accredited college, my guess is there’s going to be an assessment made about the value of the MIT versus Rick Torres College, all things being equal. They’re just going to have a different lens on the relative quality of the credential. Even though I’m fully accredited and maybe I do have a great program, but there’s a perception out there that’s different.

So, I think the world of badges, the world of learning, all of that’s going to come together and eventually … so not right now, because I think it’s early. It’s early, and frankly it’s a bit of a Wild West as you hinted to, in terms of folks really trying to understand what quality is. There’s a lot of work going on to try to rein that in. I mean, if you look at initiatives like Credential Engine, that’s what they’re trying to do. They’re trying to put some standards around this so that you can begin to start putting some frameworks and rubrics around how to evaluate skills and achievements. The Open Skills Network is another example of that. I know you had Marni Baker Stein on a while back and I think this is a huge area of opportunity. I think there’s a nice movement afoot to begin to establish some standard-oriented baselines around which a quality framework can be developed. But the other side of that is that there’s a lot of credentials being created right now. And so, it’s going to be a while for this to get sussed out. I think the market will play a big role in deciding what is really valuable and what isn’t.

But Todd, I think the larger opportunity, frankly, is to understand how these learned skills and achievements come together and represent an area … a capability of a person, a skillset of a person. And what are the skills that you need to bring together that lead to a person being able to say that they’ve got a certain set of skills and capabilities? I think to the degree that we can begin to organize the learning and the badging of outcomes to that type of a pathway, that becomes very instructive. In a new world where not every single decision, not every career option, shall we say, is to go to college. It could be to go to a career, go back to college, go back … and then you’re beginning to stack the learning in ways that are more predictable. I think this is the promise of where we are.

The promise of where we are is to really open the aperture of understanding how different sets of skills come together, to create a better pathway and a more, I guess the word I want to use here is, a more directed pathway that matches where the learner really wants to go. I think this is really the opportunity for higher education to be much more intentional about what it teaches and what it badges along the way so that learners can be more intentional about their journey and they can be more intentional about the support of that learner’s journey. This is a sea change from where things have been, this is a … Traditionally, kids are going in, or adults will go in and it’s like, “I’m trying to figure out where to go and maybe I’ll get this generic course.” I think now the pressure is more on schools and educators to help provide a more in intentional direction for the learners based on these types of new learning outcomes.

Todd Zipper:

There’s a big movement going on around skills-based hiring that historically you’re an employer, you got to have a bachelor’s degree, you got to have a bachelor’s degree from these types of universities, this GPA. We still see it today in a big way. It does feel like, I don’t know if there’s a tipping point at some point around this where, I mean, a bachelor degree is a signaling for sure, but really what they’re after are the different skills. So, if you took out your crystal ball, where do you think we are on this, when we actually hit that tipping point where an employer says, “Yeah, it’s great if you have a bachelor’s degree, but actually I’m hiring around the skills and this is how I’m going to look at a candidate.”

Rick Torres:

Well, I think that’s a great question and I think, so taking out the crystal ball, what I would say is that the pandemic, one of the lasting effects of the pandemic, is that it poured an accelerant on what we are all seeing today, as gigantic skill gaps. These skill gaps are happening at every level. It’s at entry level, it’s at mid-management level, and it’s at senior levels, where enterprises are just having a heck of a time finding the right people with the right skillsets to go in. And what’s happening is, so you look at some of the enrollment declines that have happened in education, when you look at what’s going on out there, part of it is that you’ve got adults that traditionally would be enrolled or not there, you’ve got … and where are they going? I think what’s happening here is that you’ve got a situation in the country right now, where the skill gaps are so profound that industries are just diving into these pools of people and really taking the bull by the horns and training, and paying for the training and getting people up the ramp.

Traditionally, heck, if I look back at 10, 15, 12 years ago when enrollments were 20 million just after the last great recession, what happened? Everybody went back to school to get some training. But what’s happening, in my opinion, what’s happening now and what you see happening now, and I think there was a great study done by Titan Partners that showed the amount of skill training middlemen that are out there and they’re partnering with businesses in industry, as well as frankly, some post-secondary institutions to really go after the skilling requirements here. And that is what’s going on. So, you have this really interesting pipelining of talent that’s being forced by the industry because there’s such a shortfall out there. I mean, everyone’s feeling the squeeze and it really is … The latest data, I mean just coming out in the last couple of weeks, just reaffirms that it just seems that this is there. And this is an evolution and this is giving fuel to the skill-based learning.

Now, here’s the interesting question. When I’ve talked to community colleges and leaders about this, because the community college sector was one of the hardest hit sectors with the pandemic. One of the interesting aspects of all this is that the community colleges are an interesting intersection. I think they have the ability to be very nimble with respect to how they offer education, to both adults and traditional aged learners. I remember talking to a group of leaders a couple of months ago and they were talking about, “Is traditional education gone liberal arts or things like … ” No, it’s not gone. No. There are learning outcomes that happen as a result of teaching people ethics that you can’t get just in learning how to code. There is this other aspect that’s really important.

The really interesting question is with a skill crunch, when is the right time to be thinking about the introduction of this as a way to increase your potential as a worker? And so, what you have are people that are getting trained very quickly in entry level positions but then need to learn management, need to learn other types of skills, which post-secondary institutions are primed to provide that. But they just need to change the lens on how they think about going after these students and how they can collaborate with business more closely in helping to grow.

Remember that transaction, business to business, business to school, those transitions? This is part of that. You have this really interesting set of handoffs that can happen with training and development, which some schools are beginning to take notice. I think we’re in the middle of an evolution on how some institutions see their ability to support learners over a lifetime of learning.

Todd Zipper:

So Rick, as you really keep talking about this verified aspect and trusted aspect, I’m thinking as an employer and myself hired countless people, I often … you call it lazy, whatever. I’ll just look at their LinkedIn profile, I’ll just look at that candidate’s LinkedIn profile and there’s nothing verified about the university that they went to, or alternative credentials that they put on there, or the jobs that they’ve had and what they’ve done, they’ve learned there. So, as you were speaking and talking from the learners’ perspective and how you’re trying to help them and be with them along their journey, can you compare those two things? Because as a professional,

LinkedIn is this ubiquitous thing that almost everybody that I know has a profile, it’s relatively up to date. And as you’re laying out the model that you’re talking about here with the trusted and verified part, it’s a huge difference. But this is this consumer, web-driven multi-billion dollar organization here. How do you think about those two things? Because that’s the reality how the market’s playing out with LinkedIn.

Rick Torres:

Well, it’s interesting. I mean, I think LinkedIn, as we all know, they have a great set of services that they provide and I think a lot of companies, I mean it works because a lot of companies use LinkedIn, at least to try to get an idea of where the fish might be, if you will. But I think the verified, trusted and verified piece, becomes a much more compelling proposition when you begin to actually narrow things down. So, there’s this interesting, where do I find potential lists of candidates, but then how do I trust that what they’re actually telling me is true? I think that there is a large opportunity to allow candidates … Now, this will be a big transition for businesses in general. So, hidden in all of this is that you’ve got to say, “Well, how does a business now validate anyone that they see on LinkedIn?”

I know the at the Clearinghouse, we certainly check people’s credentials before we make any type of an offer, to make sure that they are who they say they are from what courses you complete and what credentials you claim you have and all of that kind of thing. I don’t think that’s done universally, obviously. But I think there are certain roles where that’s required. You can think of medical as an interesting field, where that verification has to happen.

My guess is that a hospital’s not going to hire a doctor off of LinkedIn. They may identify that someone might be a doctor, but the validation of their degrees, the medical credentials, their certifications and all of that, has to be in some cases, in some states, you still have to bring the papyrus document over there and presented in order to get licensed, even though, for example, the Clearinghouse is seen as a primary verification authority for the purposes of that.

So, I think it’s going to evolve to that. I think eventually digital, I think there’ll be a growing trust of digital verifications and digital sources for this. I believe eventually, there will be the ability within … and if I had to put the crystal ball on, which I’ll put the crystal ball on this, I think within particular domains. So, if you look at healthcare, if you look at veterinarians, or if you look at different areas, within healthcare there are verticals, like nursing verticals and so on. There will be, I believe in the future, these verticals of trusted and validated, artifact laden workers, who will have their wallet with their validated artifacts and that will become the source. So, you can begin to see how that can evolve over time. I think it’ll probably start with entities that are … where those requirements are front and center.

Todd Zipper:

Heavily licensed, yeah. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense and look forward to seeing that. Because I think LinkedIn is clearly a little bit … it’s ubiquitous, which is why we use it, but it’s not validated and that’s a problem in a lot of circumstances.

Rick Torres:

Well, yeah, but there’s another aspect of LinkedIn that’s really interesting, that ties into something earlier that we talked about, which is LinkedIn Learning and how many folks take LinkedIn Learning courses. Now interestingly, you get a little acknowledgement that you completed X. What is the value of that? Can you badge that and then can you build on that in the marketplace? It’s a really interesting concept. How do you begin to look at those types of opportunities as part of a lifelong learning continuum?

Todd Zipper:

Yes. Yep, well said. All right, I want to switch gears to the state of enrollment and persistence and outcomes. This is a huge part of your research and your data, and like you said, in the heyday of higher ed to circa 2010 I guess, when we were at 20 million enrollments, we’re a far cry from that. And it’s been in this steady, slow decline and then COVID threw things for a loop. You also have stories regularly, I just read one recently, where they’ll compare a University of Georgia to a regional institution that … I forgot the name of the institution they were referring to. One, having their biggest classes ever enrollments, others struggling.

So, help us unpack a little bit, I know you probably … you certainly don’t have fall enrollment data out and what you guys have seen there, but certainly the spring you guys showed, I think for the first time, ever graduate or master’s degrees actually declining because that’s been on this upswing over this last decade or so. Help us unpack what you’re seeing here. How should we be thinking about … because I know there’s also some positive trends. The enrollment declines is this big headline, but there’s also positive trends on completion rates. Maybe give us some of the headlines to really understand the state of higher education from the numbers perspective.

Rick Torres:

Yeah, so thanks Todd. I’ll try to be succinct here because there’s there, there’s a lot to unpack in that. So, let me try to hit the headlines here. So, when you first look at … One of the things that’s become very, very clear is that higher education … The impact of COVID on higher education is becoming very clear from a sector standpoint. Different sectors are getting hit differently as a result of this. To give you a sense, I mean if I just look at the spring 2022 numbers, I mean you begin to look at overall sector declines, that were upwards of … I think spring 22 was down 4.1% overall versus spring 2021, which by the way, was 3.5% down from 2020. But when you unpack that, for example, you look at the public two year sector and the public two year sector was down in 2022, 7.8% from 2021, which was by the way, down almost 10% from the 2020 spring term.

So, what that tells you is that there’s been a huge decline, particularly in the two year sector driving a lot of this. When you put that in perspective, I mean the four year sector as an example has stayed relatively flat, private and public colleges. So, what is that telling you?

Well, what that could be telling you is that some of the students that normally would’ve gone to community college are now going right to the four year schools. And we see evidence of that in several states where, I have talked to community college leaders and they have talked about the fact that yeah, traditionally students that would be coming to them out of high school because they’ve taken some advanced placement or whatever the case might be, are now moving into four year schools instead of the community college. And that is something that’s been impacting the sector. So, I think that’s one area.

But I think when you begin to unpack some of this, some of the big changes that happened across all sectors were, there was a big decline in men. So, the gender decline was pretty pronounced. In 2021 for example, it was down 5.5% from 2020 and down another 3.3% in all sectors in 2022. For the community college sector, that number was 14.4% down from 2020 and then down another 6% in 2022, from 2021 to 2022. So, you see this precipitous drop in the number of men going to school and this is something that’s been noted.

The other thing that’s happened in the two year sector is you begin to look at the overall decline between ’19 and ’21 in the spring, through 2022, it’s over 18%. So, it’s pretty significant when you look at the two year number.

One other piece I’ll just bring out Todd, is that a big part of community college enrollment, which gets buried in all of this, is transfers and there’s a lot of transfers that occur between two year and four year, four year back to two year, two year to two year. To give you a sense, lateral transfers were down 26% in 2020 and really, never really recovered. And that was on a continuing basis, total transfers were down 20% and down another 1.7% on top of that in 2021, reverse transfers, which is a student or trying to get a reverse … reversing from a four year to a two year and getting a two year credential, that was down 23%. So again, four year going into two year, that declined on a continuing basis by 23% with very little to show for it. So overall, what you have is a situation where transfers also plunged.

And then the other piece on the community college, which should not be a surprise, there was a study that was formed by the National Bureau of Economic Research and what they talked about was the decline in assembly repair and maintenance skill-related programs in the community colleges. Well, not a big shock, I mean those numbers plunged. And to give you a sense of some of those declines, you’ve got mechanic repair technologies, which had two consecutive years of nearly 20% declines. And in 2022, recovered in the spring of 2022, by only 11%. And this is after multiple years of drops. And so, you’ve got a situation here, where the community colleges, in fact have not been able to recover the loss that they’ve taken in adult populations, male populations. And now, in 2022 actually, women as well, have not been able to recover that population. They’re out doing something else. They’re out working or they’re getting skilled in another way but they’re not coming back to the schools.

So, highlighting gender, men, where have they gone? That was the big hit. There were obviously big impacts … on which we didn’t talk about, but first time enrollees had a very large disparate impact on Black and latino populations. Latinx populations were impacted by this in a big way.

To give you an idea, the spring 2021 enrollment for Black populations first time enrollees was down 19% and then down another 6% off of that number in spring of 2022. So, there is clearly an issue going on out here around disparate impacts. So, you’ve got race ethnicity impacts, two year sector getting hit pretty hard, male populations, transfers aren’t happening the way they used to. This is the trend that we see out there. And this is why I believe in part The Chron put that headline out there saying that this got exacerbated with COVID and higher education needs to react.

Todd Zipper:

Yeah, it’s hard to understand what the long-term implications are here. For over a decade now, I’ve been of following this storyline that the college business model is broken, which at some point … What do I mean when I say that? Meaning your revenues are less than your expenses and you’re increasing tuition rates above the net standard inflation. We haven’t even talked about inflation’s impact on all this. So, it’s hard to see how if enrollments are continuingly not there, and again it’s pockets and it’s in different ways, how do these institutions sustain themselves? That’s really the big question right now.

Rick Torres:

Well, so I think part of the answer to that question, Todd, is in policy and when the Clearinghouse … Just to put it up front, I’m very neutral on things like this. Let the legislators figure out what they need to do and all of that. But I would tell you this, as long as education is being set up because of the way grants and funding and loans are provided, based on degree completions, if that becomes … and that remains the only way that a school can demonstrate its worthiness versus let’s say, preparing someone to get into a job and being able to demonstrate that they landed a job with the workforce credential.

I think the more progressive states, and I don’t mean that from a blue versus red, I mean from an educational perspective and understanding the connection between education and workforce. There are states like Virginia and other states that actually understand that there’s a connection between these things that needs to be acknowledged. The burden of proof still lies with the school that says, “Okay, I trained Rick Torres, he went out and got this workforce credential and he is now gainfully employed in the state and therefore, I should be given credit for this.” I think there are states that are beginning to evolve their models of evaluation of institutions, to include things like workforce and providing apprenticeships and getting people jobs. A lot of this is tied to economic mobility and being able to prove things like that out. And I think those are very important aspects to the future of education because if we’re able, I believe at the state level, if states can begin to evolve that model of how they look at and how they evaluate the contributions of education institutions to the continuation of learning to a learner, then I think it opens the door for them to be much more nimble about how they can provide education instead of being boxed into this one monolithic, did they get a degree or did not get a degree?

I think that still needs to be an important measure, no question. But it’s in addition to, there’s this other piece that’s very, very important here, which is around earning certifications and workforce and being able to demonstrate that.

Todd Zipper:

Yeah, why is it so hard for our government to track, especially when they’re giving the money out through loans so they could obligate IRS data or something, why can’t they track these job outcomes? It seems like it’s almost impossible across the board.

Rick Torres:

Yeah, that’s a great question. Probably worthy of another … There is a lot of reasons for that. I think it starts with actually, a lot of limitations on what you can actually do from a privacy standpoint and looking at … Think about wage data, what needs to be true, if someone really wanted to understand how much someone was earning, you really would have to get it down to … that becomes a major privacy concern. So, what we’ve been able to figure out and I think what folks in different states have done, you’ve been able to get to a place where you can begin to understand what pockets of credentials are worth, similarly issued credentials are worth in the market, by getting aggregated information and bringing it together. That’s been the best that we can do at this point.

We’ve done some work in industry credentials along those lines. And Todd, it actually creates a very interesting point, that I think is worth discussing here a little bit. Because one of the problems with measuring socioeconomic mobility as an outcome is the inconvenient, I think truth, that we have out there that even today, right now, we have gender and race ethnicity-based wage gaps out there for similar credentials.

So, here’s what that means. So, if I’m a school that now says, “Look, I am now getting more students to complete and they are getting workforce credentials and I can prove that,” that’s great. So, we applaud that and you’re doing all the support efforts, but you’re basically at the mercy of the market for the second measurement of that, which is the socioeconomic lift. That’s beyond your control.

So, how do you begin to have that conversation around making sure that you’re given the credit where it’s due as an institution? And so the Clearinghouse, what we’re trying to do is shine a light on things like that. Because I think those are important conversations. My personal opinion is that if our data and our resources can help open the discussion around how to have a fair, better calibrated environment, to measure educational outcomes, to build on some of the great work that’s going on now in the Department of Education, looking at the college scorecard and the evolution that they’ve done. But we have to do much more than that and we’ve got to go a lot further. This is going to evolve over time, but I believe that again, the Clearinghouse can play an important role in helping to inform some of the key pieces of that evolution and then it’s up to the institutions and the policy makers to get together to get to the so what’s of that. And all we can do is help schools present information and then they’ve got to take it from there. But I believe that this change is absolutely foundational for higher education to then really be set up to do what it’s meant to do, which is to provide the learning at the right time for the learners, to help them progress in their career journeys.

Todd Zipper:

So, before we wrap up, I’d be remiss not to ask of your perspective on the latest, biggest news over the last few weeks around the student debt cancellation. I’m not sure what we’re calling it overall, but we’re talking about hundreds of billions of dollars coming out of the system and also I think January 1st, the beginning again of people paying back their loans and interest payments, which is a huge deal because we’re talking well over two years now, of this forbearance period, which I’m sure is going to create angst among a lot of folks.

I mean, how should we think about this disruption in the system because this is pretty big, right? Eliminating debt, people starting to pay back debt again. Are we going down the road of free college? I mean, it’s hard for me to make sense of this, there’s moral hazards involved here. Any perspective from your end on how this impacts the system?

Rick Torres:

So, I’ll give you my opinion on this, which is not the Clearinghouse’s opinion or any … it’s really my view of this. I understand, if you read everything, you understand a lot of different reasons why people think this is a good idea. And the question is whether it’s solving the root issue and there’s an affordability issue here. There’s just all kinds of issues here. I had a conversation, oh my gosh, it had to be in 2016. I was in Richmond, Virginia doing a presentation and I had a student come up to me and ask me about free college. I said, “Well, what do you mean by free college?” They said, “Well, I should be able to get a student loan, or a grant, or whatever it is and then go for free to college and if I complete.”

I said, “Okay, well you just made a very important distinction here. So, you put part of the burden of not having a student loan on your ability to actually complete what you started.” And so, this is a very difficult question for that reason because there are lots of reasons why people do not complete when they start. I mean, we published a report, if you go to our website looking at our post-secondary data partnership, that talked about the fact that there is a huge divide, racial divide, in the number of credits completed versus credits attempted in the first year of enrollment by race and ethnicity.

I mean, if you’re only completing 60% or 65% of the courses you attempt, you’re not going to get to the finish line. So, this really puts a focus on, okay, wait a minute, how are we spending this money and how do we begin to rethink how tuition dollars, how student loan dollars, how Pell Grant dollars get awarded and granted and spent in order to support education? And is there a joint ownership here, for example, between the schools and the learner?

Because the dirty little secret here, which is not a secret, is that 50% of baccalaureate recipients came out of a community college. So, transfer is still a big deal, so this whole idea … and people transfer and complete. So, just because you stop going to one school, it’s not a negative assessment of that school, you’re transferring to another institution in some cases. So right now, the system is not really equipped to manage that very well. I think that’s one of the many transformations that needs to happen from a policy standpoint, is just taking a step back, understanding how people are actually looking to pursue their education and then what is the role of the institution in that journey and how do you set up a better economic model so that the students can get the education they deserve because the schools that they’re going to are funded to a point where they can provide that education? I think that’s really at the heart of the matter here.

Todd Zipper:

Great. So, a couple last closing questions. Is there one thing or a couple things you want to ensure our listeners walk away understanding from our conversation today?

Rick Torres:

Yes. I think that one of the things, if you’re in higher education, I think you’ve got to understand if you’re in faculty, you’re in staff, you’re in the midst of a pretty big evolution that’s happening right now. This is not one of those things where, you’re going to go back to the good old days. The good old days are not coming back. There is too many forces that are working against that and that means that you’re going to have to pivot. There’s no question. The die has been cast. Skill-based learning, pipelining into workforce, lifelong learning, all of these things are real. They’re no longer white papers. These are things that are actually happening out there.

And for many institutions, not all, but for many, this is something that they’re going to have to take into account as they do their strategic planning going into the future, about how they’re going to evolve the way they deliver education services to the broader constituencies that they serve. I think that’s a big, big takeaway that people need to understand. The Clearinghouse, as I mentioned, works with schools that enroll 98% of the enrollment of the country. So, we see it, I mean, we see it from a central sense. We can see it by sector and this change is absolutely happening.

Todd Zipper:

Wonderful. I asked this of all my guests, part of what we love about education is that we all have learning champions. Who has been a learning champion for you? And how has that person helped you in your life?

Rick Torres:

Oh my, well, that’s a great question. I would say that my dad early on and my mom early on, were my big learning champions. What I learned from them was the power of continuous evolution in learning. I mean, that you’re never done learning. I guess it speaks to the role of parents in your development as a student but I mean, I learned that early on, that you just have to have a continuous intellectual curiosity because that really had … I mean, frankly, that’s been a huge thing for me overall. So, I’m still learning today.

Todd Zipper:

Rick, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today. Until next time, this has been An Educated Guest.

Rick Torres:

All right, Todd, thank you very much. Appreciate it.

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