It’s commonly understood that adult learners want degree or certificate programs that are low in cost and high in speed-to-completion. Less understood is how schools can provide these features along with high quality learning experiences and a legitimate chance to find a well-paying job upon graduation.

While private and public institutions expend significant capital and effort in pursuit of these goals, an established, but somewhat unusual educational system, may be emerging as an engine of innovation: the United States military.

In addition to the GI Bill, which has long been a cornerstone of American higher education, recent credentialing efforts by the military attempt to rationalize how training can be measured and used for degree and certificate completion. A closer look at these efforts may hold important lessons for higher education.

Adult Learner Preferences: Solving for Time, Cost, and Quality

Eduventures Adult Prospect Survey confirms that adult learners seeking credentials at all levels are reluctant to pay tuition and fees to “learn” things they already “know.” When asked what features could increase their interest in enrolling, most adult prospects report a preference for programs that leverage their life and work experiences (Figure 1).

Which Features Would Increase YourInterest in Enrolling in a Program?

Figure 1

This pattern is also evident among enrolled adult students. According to the Enrolled Student Survey, our recent study of currently enrolled adult learners, more than a third of respondents expressed a strong preference for opportunities to accelerate their path to a degree or certificate, including test-out options. Enrolled adults clearly have a desire to demonstrate their existing knowledge of content and skills.

Proponents of competency-based education (CBE) have argued that an outcomes-driven pedagogy can help address these preferences, and more closely align student outcomes with employer requirements. While CBE remains topical and relevant, however, our research suggests that outside of a few established schools, such as Western Governors University (WGU) and Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), its impact on enrollment has remained incremental and limited to the program level.

The COOL (Credentialing Opportunities Online) World

Enter the U.S. Military. Beyond its obvious role in defending the United States and its allies, the U.S. provides training and educational support to millions of Americans each year. The lion’s share of military training is based on the attainment of clearly defined outcomes and measurable progression through increasingly complex pathways.

The hitch, of course, is that the military does not track educational progress through the accumulation of Carnegie units. Nor does it grant credit-hour degrees or certificates through the use of official transcripts.

Unlike most conventional colleges and universities, military performance and outcomes, rather than the credit hour, determine progress. This places the burden of proof on veterans to prove that their taxpayer-funded training makes them eligible for post-service employment.

These principles have catalyzed the military to create the COOL (Credentialing Opportunities Online) system. Based on an initial pilot created by Army University, a COOL portal now exists for both active military and civilian employees of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps. Together, these portals now represent a credentialing ecosystem that allows enlisted persons and officers to align discreet skills with a broad range of credentials and employment goals.

The COOL approach is based on an initial identification of the skills and desired outcomes of virtually every role within the military—from gunnery to language interpretation to cybersecurity. Enlistees, officers, and in some cases civilian employees, follow a simple process:

  • Conduct a search using the Military Occupational Specialty (MOS). These include literally every possible service role and are matched to civilian credential requirements.
  • Identify what credentials may be needed to match an existing MOS with a desired civilian job.
  • Organize resources, including available GI Bill funds, to cover any credentialing program costs.
  • Complete credentialing programs and required assessments, either through COOL or an external provider.

The COOL Approach

This produces a detailed roadmap for skills development and preparation for civilian employment. At each step of this process, the enlistee or officer is able to drill down into the specific details regarding the required skills, exams, and opportunities. They can also access publically available data on civilian job requirements, salaries, and employment outlook. These may include the availability of vouchers or similar cost-reduction opportunities.

COOL: An Engine for CBE Innovation?

Like many aspects of military life, use of COOL is required for enlistees seeking a promotion or a civilian job. This creates an immediate, scalable opportunity to understand how an entire educational system, in this case the U.S. military, can be organized around outcomes and competency attainment.

For the rest of higher education, it raises a number of interesting questions:

  • What new insights about adult learners can be learned from COOL?
  • Does COOL suggest a model for civilian educational institutions to attract, retain and graduate more adult learners?
  • Is COOL a step forward in the effort to more accurately acknowledge the value of life and work experiences?
  • Will employers respond more favorably to veterans who have assembled a portfolio through a COOL portal?
  • What happens when a large educational system takes seriously the notion that deep learning can happen independently from the credit hour?

The military continues to assess the performance of its COOL portals. Perhaps, someday, evidence of its impact may be felt not only by the men and women who shift from the military to the civilian workforce, but also by college and universities that are focused on the needs of adult learners.

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