How to build more flexible academic pathways for the changing college student

"It's not about figuring out your entire path," says Julie Straub, senior executive director for the Department of Professional Studies at Butler University. "We know that life continues to change and evolve; it's more about finding the next right step."

Students need more reassurance than ever from higher education that skills acquisition from a college or university is well worth it. Some institutions are discovering that the best way to build students’ confidence is by providing them with experiential learning quickly and the ability to switch gears into other avenues as they continue to evolve as rapidly as the world around them.

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Shorter, accelerated programming at Butler University

Butler University recently announced it’s launching Butler+, a new initiative that pushes the needle away from the traditional four-year model best suited for young 20-somethings and into a space that welcomes learners of all ages. Looking at students through the lifelong lens, Butler+ is the private university’s answer to the new wave of continuous learning modalities catching fire across the country, offering a wide array of credential types for various career pathways while erasing the friction points typical for adult learners.

For example, Butler+ has enacted policies and implemented frameworks across all of its colleges to streamline onramps and offramps for busy adults already in the workforce. In case a student wants to enroll in a degree program, their experience in the military, in apprenticeships or by other non-academic means can potentially be counted as credits in the form of prior learning. Additionally, if a student enrolls in a boot camp at BU to acquire a specific skill and later considers pursuing a long-term credential, Butler+ offers a variety of ways to stack credentials toward a degree.

“If they want to come back to us, we don’t want to tell them they have to start all over again,” says Julie Straub, senior executive director for the Department of Professional Studies, which houses Butler+.

Straub believes the time is nigh for a dynamic initiative like Butler+ due to the rapidly changing workforce created by AI and related technologies. Employees’ “skills” acumen is becoming increasingly important, while at the same time, the skills needed for tomorrow’s workforce are yet to be discovered. Such a workforce landscape has helped drive BU’s efforts to build accelerated programming with fewer strings attached.

“With the business and tech environment evolving at such a quick pace, getting someone willing to commit for three to five years toward a credential is a really long time,” she says. “Sometimes employers need skills-based hires that drive impact today.”

Butler+ offers 25 degrees and 15 professional education offerings closely aligned with labor market needs at the national, regional, and local levels, according to market research collected from The Burning Glass Institute.

Through turbulent market whims and unexpected circumstances that befall busy adults, Butler+ empowers learners to level up professionally or, as Straub describes, “find their next.”

“It’s not about figuring out your entire path,” she says. “We know that life continues to change and evolve; it’s more about finding the next right step.”

Empowering students with career-oriented knowledge

At Nova Southeastern University in Florida, approximately 66% of undergraduate students are in the pre-health track. As formidable as a career in healthcare may seem, students who enter are just as wide-eyed as their peers on other academic pathways, says Emilio Lorenzo, director of the Office of Student Success at NSU Florida.

“There are so many pathways to finding a career in health besides being a doctor,” says Lorenzo. “Students don’t know what they don’t know.”

To acclimate students quickly to the kind of commitment a career track in health is, NSU exposes students to a wide array of well-equipped advisors, peers and experiential learning programs to help them find their calling in healthcare well before earning their undergrad.

The Center for Academic and Professional Success houses college advisors who are versed in the ins and outs of NSU’s academic tracks, as well as the professional tracks associated with each academic pathway. Experts who serve as career and academic advisers help students cut through the ambiguity of a specific degree’s potential all in one meeting, says Lorenzo.

NSU students looking to talk about their professional journey in a lower-stakes setting can also seek advice from one of their peers. Pre-health consultants are top-of-the-class third- and fourth-year students taught the five pillars of the pre-health track: academics, healthcare experience, research, leadership and professional experience and community involvement.

“Since it’s coming from one student to another and that student has also been trained as an advisor, that message comes across in a completely different way than if it were coming from an advisor who’s more detached,” says Lorenzo.

Lastly, students are offered simulation labs early into their four-year pathway across medical sonography, dentistry, blood management and triage and a wide array of crafts to help them visualize what the profession would be like outside of study hours.

“This isn’t theoretical,” says Lorenzo. “The simulation labs provide them an avenue to test drive these careers.”

Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and first-generation journalism graduate from the University of Florida. His beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador and Brazil.

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