The Pulse of Higher Ed

Perspectives on Online and Professional Education
from UPCEA’s Research and Consulting Experts

Navigating the Wonderland of Higher Education: The Importance of Transparent Pathways

Photo of a person (Emily West) smiling at the camera

By Emily West

In the classic Disney movie Alice in Wonderland, one scene captivated me as a child: Alice, lost and bewildered in Tulgey Wood, desperately seeking direction amid nonsensical arrows and signposts. It is here that she first encounters the Cheshire Cat who, in his feeble attempt to provide guidance, leaves her even more confused than before. 

Entering the world of higher education can often feel like tumbling into Wonderland. Imagine a learner clicking through an institution’s website and struggling to figure out which path to take on their academic journey. They may stumble across unfamiliar terms like non-degree credential, stackable certificate, or credit for prior learning. Moreover, they may have difficulty finding and deciphering exactly what their options are and how they fit together. Often, the challenge is not a lack of pathways to choose from, but a lack of clear pathways to completion, further education, and/or employment. The task for higher education institutions is as simple as it is critical: Make academic pathways transparent from the first click. 

Not only is it important for the learner to have easy access to this information, but schools also reap the benefits of accessibility. EducationDynamic’s annual Online College Student Report, released in February 2024, reveals that accessibility to relevant information on a college’s website is a contributing factor for enrollment decisions. When considering enrollment in online programs, respondents weighed various factors, with a significant portion relating to pathways:  the availability of online programs (38%), program offerings that match their career goals (33%), and the length of time to complete their studies (32%). Notably, 23% of respondents said that ease of access to information on the institution’s website was important to them.  

Additionally, UPCEA and StraighterLine’s October 2023 report Disengaged Learners & Return Paths to Higher Education tells us that learners desire added layers of value in an educational program. Interest in enrolling in an undergraduate degree is heavily influenced by factors such as credit for prior learning (CPL), microcredentials, and stackability within degree completion programs. This data serves as compelling evidence of the impact of pathway transparency on program landing pages. 


Why Pathway Transparency Matters: 

Empowering Informed Decision-Making: Transparent pathways empower learners to make informed decisions about their academic journey. Clear information on program landing pages about course sequences and credit requirements help learners visualize the path they need to take, reducing the risk of wrong turns. Beyond that basic information, learners also want to know what other factors may shape their journey to completion. UPCEA and StraighterLine’s research reveals that stackable microcredentials have a profound effect on the decision to enroll in a degree program. Over three-quarters (76%) of respondents in that study said microcredentials that stack toward larger credentials would greatly increase (32%) or increase (44%) their interest in pursuing an undergraduate degree, further reinforcing why clear pathways matter. 

Reducing Anxiety and Stress: Navigating the maze of higher education can be stressful for learners. Transparent pathways alleviate anxiety by providing a clear roadmap, allowing learners to focus on their studies rather than getting lost in the woods. Without the need for extensive searching and deciphering, learners can allocate their time wisely, ensuring a smoother path from enrollment to program completion. 

Enhancing Retention and Reenrollment: Transparent information cultivates a sense of confidence and commitment among learners. When learners have a clear understanding of their academic journey, they are more likely to successfully complete their program. EducationDynamic’s report sheds light on a compelling statistic: Approximately 80% of respondents enrolled in certificate or license study programs expressed intentions to pursue further credentials or a degree in the same or related field of study. However, 31% of respondents were unsure whether their credential could be applied to future degree programs. This underscores the importance of institutions’ clearly communicating the stackable credentials they offer and how they integrate into other pathways at the institution. 

Connecting Pathways to Job Outcomes: The significance of transparency extends beyond academic pathways; it involves showing the link between education and career outcomes. Understanding that connection enables learners to tailor their studies to meet industry demands, acquire relevant skills, and ultimately boost their employability. The majority of respondents to EducationDynamics’s study had a career-focused motivation for pursuing their online education. Notably, 26% indicated that knowing a program aligned with their career goals would sway their enrollment decisions toward one school over another. As the job market evolves, learners increasingly value the workforce skills and specialized knowledge offered by microcredentials. A January 2024 report released by UPCEA and Collegis Education, The Effect of Employer Understanding and Engagement on Non-Degree Credentials, highlights heightened employer demand and the growing significance of microcredentials in today’s workforce.  This makes it more important than ever for learners to be informed about the educational pathways available to them, and how they align to their career goals. 

It is time for colleges and universities to take inspiration from Alice’s adventures and strive for transparency. By providing clear and well-marked pathways on program landing pages, institutions can empower learners to make informed choices, reduce stress, and undoubtedly influence their enrollment decisions.  

No Cheshire Cat required. 

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