4.4 Ricardo Torres, President and CEO, National Student Clearinghouse

Episode Summary

Ricardo Torres has been with the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) for 27 years having earned a BS degree from Manhattan College and an MBA from Georgetown University. Over that time the NSC has become a trusted partner for 3,600 colleges and universities and 17,000 high schools, creating unique pathways that can track the journeys of learners throughout their educational careers. More recently, the NSC has become involved with the Learning and Employment Record (LER) that documents skills that could be useful to post-graduation employment or even further schooling. Here, the NFC works with the federal government, states, the National Governors Association, colleges and universities, and major corporations. This podcast reviews some of that work and the implications of an LER for universities, their students, and business. The idea of skills documentation, done right and ubiquitously, and done with modern technology has profound implications for all involved. As Rick says at one point in the interview, it takes the friction out of that interaction. And that builds a better outcome for all.

Episode Notes

Topics discussed in this episode include:

Resources Discussed in this Episode:

Music Credits: C’est La Vie by Derek Clegg


Episode Transcription

ExperiencED Season 5, Episode 1

[00:00:00] Jim Stellar: Welcome to the ExperiencED podcast. I am Jim Stellar. 

[00:00:12] Mary Churchill: I am Mary Churchill 

[00:00:13] Adrienne Dooley: and I am Adrienne Dooley. 

[00:00:15] Jim Stellar: We bring you this podcast on experiential education 

[00:00:18] Mary Churchill: with educators and thought leaders 

[00:00:20] Adrienne Dooley: from around the country and the world. 

[00:00:23] Jim Stellar: Ricardo Torres heads the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC), a nonprofit data platform as a service organization that was started in 1993, by the higher education community to help deal with data-related issues. Today, the clearinghouse serves institutions with data-related services to over 3,600 colleges and universities as well as 17,000 high schools.

[00:00:51] Much of the recent reporting that you have been hearing about declining enrollments emanates from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, which is frequently cited as a national resource for the education community. Rick has been president and CEO of the NSC for 14 years. Having first started in the corporate world after earning a BS degree from Manhattan College and an MBA from Georgetown University.

[00:01:18] Under his leadership, the NSC has developed into a trusted partner to lifelong learners and the K-12 community through their collective services and to colleges. The Clearinghouse can uniquely track pathways and journeys of learners throughout their higher education careers. More recently, the NSC has been deeply engaged in the formation of the learning and employment record, a skills-based transcript, which is designed to be learner-centric and enable lifelong learners to port their learning as they transition from one chapter of their development into the next. Here, the NFC works with the federal government, states, national governors’ associations, colleges and universities, and major corporates. In full disclosure, I serve as a board advisor to one of the NSC strategic partners, IQ4. And we did a past podcast here that featured the CEO of IQ4.

[00:02:20] Jim Stellar: Today, we will talk to Rick about the transformational power of skills documentation in creating a network of students, communities of care, higher education institutions, and hiring companies. 

[00:02:35] Rick, I want to get to the power of learning skills to inspire students. But first please tell me a little bit about the National Student Clearinghouse and your leadership of it. Maybe particularly this new learning and employment record. 

[00:02:51] Ricardo Torres: Jim, thanks again for the invitation to speak to everyone here. So, you know, I think what's important to know about the Clearinghouse, is that it has been on a journey tied to our mission and our vision of democratizing data and platforms and applications, and to the benefit of all institutions of learning, support for organizations and employers. What does that mean? Democratization. It's about ensuring appropriate access to the appropriate personas. You know, if you're a school, if you're a learner, if you're a student support person, et cetera. Guidelines of data privacy and trust that institutions and learners expect from the clearinghouse. So, we have this ecosystem of trust that's out there with information and data. And within that context, you know, enabling the learner and institutions of learning, we've been on this journey over time, and we have been on this journey side by side with higher eds since they founded us 28 years ago.

[00:03:50] And in the beginning, we mostly focused on you know, essentially following the school's lead, listening to them, and saying, okay, what is it that you need from us? And today we still do a lot of listening and a lot of continuous improvement on some of the existing services that we have with all of these schools that we serve.

[00:04:10] But, things have begun to shift, and there's been a new demand from the schools on thought leadership and, Jim, that's manifested itself in areas like cybersecurity issues and challenges. Involving us, for example, on international and domestic privacy legislation, that's evolving, right? Because it's very complex. And then, you know, new opportunities and trends such as the move to a new education workforce relationship with a focus on how you take an evolved traditional outcome, such as a degree to its learning outcome components and within that, having those outcomes be reflected in a manner that can be ingested by any recipient that a learner wants to send that to. And we'll talk more about that, I think, hopefully as we're moving along in this conversation, but this is a really important point, because I find that higher education tends to do a lot of self-evaluation and self-reflection, and a lot of white papers are written, and it reminds me a little bit of this movement to a comprehensive learner record. Now, that's a great start, the CLR, where it was, let's really try to get underneath what a student's learning and understand how those can be reflected in a way that another school can understand it.

[00:05:40] The CLR, in my opinion, was never designed to be ingested by a business. And for that, you know, there needs to be a different model. The learning and employment record which we've been working on incorporates workplace learning and academic learning and it does it in a manner that allows the learner to take their learnings forward through their career.

[00:06:01] The CLR, the comprehensive learner record, which higher education is focused on today is a subset of the LER. You know, and within that context, there's this whole notion of a digital transcript or a digital diploma, which is great for higher ed transitions, but not for skills, not for a skill-based economy, right?

[00:06:21] When you start involving the skills, you really have a bunch of issues with the regular digital transcript or a digital diploma, especially as non-traditional education has become a growing and large factor in where people are going to get their education. Not everything is happening in the traditional higher education forum.

[00:06:44] So as a result, you know, Jim, there's this need to really think through if I'm a higher education institution at the community college level at the you know, a four-year public college or a private college or a university. What are the things that I need to be reflecting in a digital set of outcomes of my students, right?

[00:07:14] That would allow that to port efficiently and effectively, whether they're moving on to a business or on to a new job or they're moving into a new school. Right. So, I think this is very important. 

[00:07:30] Jim Stellar: Well, that was fantastic. One of the clearest explanations I've heard yet of this history. Thank you for doing that, but I want to focus us if we can, on the potential powerful effects that the learning and employment record has on the students themselves.

[00:07:44] Now remember, I spent a long time as a professor and a Dean at a university where the students follow the cooperative education plan, alternating six months of real full-time work with six months of full-time study until they got their degrees. And we thought that when the students went out on co-op, they grew up. The joke we had in the Dean's office was a student left for a six month co-op at age 19 and came back at age 25.

[00:08:07] So I would like you to comment a little bit on that dynamic from your perspective. Why do learning skills matter to a college student? 

[00:08:17] Ricardo Torres: Well, I'll tell you something. They will matter more if in fact, the schools and the cooperatives and the collaboratives reflect those skills correctly, and then those can be leveraged as you move to your next transition.

[00:08:32] So let's talk about transitions. I think it's really important to set the context here and why this conversation matters. Essentially, I think through the lifetime of a learner and I mean, from the time they are in kindergarten, pre-K - all the way through to the time you retire, learners go through four sets of transitions, some in different ways with stops and gaps.

[00:08:58] You have school transitions to other schools. You have school transitions to business. You have business transitions to other businesses, change my job, and then you have business transitions back to school to learn something more. Now here's the interesting thing about that underlying all of this, which what you just suggested, you know, leaving at age 19, coming back to 24 is that the students are learning something while they were away.

[00:09:31] And I think what has not been given the appropriate lens and discussion on all of this is that businesses themselves are skill builders and educators, not in the accredited academic sense, but they are right. And the lack of coordination between academia and schools and businesses around the skills that they are imparting on their workers and how they are educating their workers creates extraordinary skill mismatches.

[00:10:04] And those skill mix mismatches create its own set of what I'm calling death spirals, like consequences for learners and for institutions and for businesses. So, let me dimensionalize that. For a learner, what does that mean? Well, that means that if I'm mismatched, I'm not getting credit for the stuff I've learned, I'm probably going to be undersold a position somewhere that I'm probably more qualified than I am. Right. Or even worse if the skills aren't recorded properly, I could be in the wrong job which then has huge costs for the employer and the worker alike.

[00:10:47] Right. So, there is just this very large set of consequences that we're living through right now that I think an approach that leverages and looks and focuses on skills and begins to work on, for example, some of the work going on with the open skills network, looking at rich skill descriptors, which are easily translatable between business and academia are really important.

[00:11:14] Right. For example, in cyber, you have the nice framework where, schools and businesses are aligning around learning outcomes and things that are understandable, right. Between business and education that is really important. Right? And I think that this is why for a learner, skills matter.

[00:11:35] And I will tell you a secondary piece here that I feel very passionate about is that an approach that focuses on skills, appropriately done creates new apertures of opportunity for learners and institutions and employers. And what I mean by that is that for learners of all ages, you can begin to see a world where --I remember being on the boards of inner-city schools and listening to students talk about the fact that they didn't think that higher education was within their reach. Imagine a world where they could identify skills, skill-based jobs that are available to them within reach, and then be able to map out here is where you can take the courses that you need, and you don't need to get a full degree to go get it and start working.

[00:12:32] Right. And you know, and I think that, look, I think higher education is fantastic. I do believe that there is a role. Higher ed needs to begin to understand how it can support a broader ecosystem of learning that includes the type of learning that I just referenced. Now. I think it's going to be really important that that coordination happens.

[00:12:53] Right now, the job shortages that we see out there are tremendous. And a lot of it is about skills and employers are trying to figure out how do I pipeline the people with the right skills. The problem is people don't understand the skills that they need with enough clarity to understand whether they actually qualify for those roles.

[00:13:14] So the focus on skills I believe is paramount, right? In order to change the entire trajectory of how we begin to look for opportunities in the future for everyone.  

[00:13:29] Jim Stellar: So, that's a terrifically broad vision and wonderful. Let me focus it down on something that I thought was broad until you just spoke.

[00:13:37] And that is the concern of public universities, like my own here at the University at Albany, which tries to provide upward social mobility for students, as well as an excellent education for everyone. And right now, we have a freshman class that's 43% first-generation. So how do you think this skills focus can particularly energize people from disadvantaged populations, lower socioeconomic status and get them, for the moment, into higher education?

[00:14:06] Just take that one small slice. 

[00:14:08] Ricardo Torres: So, that's a great conversation, because what you've actually talked about is the K-14, K-16 continuum here and where the exposure to what's possible begins. And for me, I believe that it has to happen in middle school and high school.

[00:14:32] That students need to be aware once they get into high school of the opportunities that are out there and that some of them will require an associate’s degree. Some of them will require a baccalaureate. Some of them may require a master's degree. Some of them require workforce credentials that require apprenticeships or internships that complement the learning here so that you can then leave high school with a diploma and then, you know, take a few courses and be able to earn that workforce credential.

[00:15:05] But here's the thing, Jim, it all starts with being aware that those opportunities exist. And, you know, one of the things that we're learning with the effort that we have underway in Indiana called the Indiana Achievement Wallet where we have a tremendous pilot underway right now, which is that it takes - there are four basic components that need to come together to enable this journey.

[00:15:32] You have the learner. So, the learner centric and being able to have a learner understand what's out there and then where to go get the credential. But the second piece is that you need to have a community of care, whether it's a high school counselor, whether it's a college counselor, whether it's a career counselor, there's got to be someone who can actually spend time with that student say, this is what this means and why it's possible for you to get there.

[00:15:58] Right. Why it is possible and how it is possible and be able to support that learner on their journey. Right? The third, interestingly, is tied to the institutions of learning. So, let's talk about a community college for the university of all. One of the things that you have to be very aware of, especially as you begin to understand incoming freshmen and incoming classes and students that you currently are teaching what their career aspirations are. The question, I think that skills-based learning surfaces is - are we actually fully preparing them for this role?

[00:16:41] Right. And you can look at your own learning. You can look at your own courses, you can look at your curriculum, the pedagogy, bring all that together and say, you know, if a particular job requires a hundred skills of different types, including critical thinking skills, whatever those skills are. And also, some workforce, business professional skills.

[00:17:04] How is my curriculum preparing this learner and am I missing something? You know, and I think the schools have to have an ability to, for example, make a decision about an adjunct on the fly to say, you know what, we're missing this skill right here. So how do we bring somebody in so that we can complete the skill attainment for our learners as they're moving into internships, apprenticeships, or into the workforce for a job? So, I think that's sort of the third component and the fourth is the employer themselves. Right. And the employers --I was in a conference a couple of weeks ago where IBM was talking about the fact that I think the number was 50% of the jobs that they had out in the marketplace last year were basically being defined on skills, not on degree information. So, when you hear about technology companies changing the way they are doing things. For me, you can either do one of two things with that if you're in higher ed, you can say, it's not going to stick and we'll get back to the way we were, or you say, this is an opportunity, and this is an opportunity to open the door to more students, right? Based on a skill-based curriculum and that can link to the traditional accredited model that a school has. Right. So, it's about making this evolution, making this jump.

[00:18:46] And I think this is the opportunity that schools have, and it starts with partnerships, interestingly with feeder high schools and school districts. And then it works through to- because that vision begins there  -and then it continues to carry through into post-secondary. So, I think this is really important.

[00:19:10] And then, I know you asked about the learners coming in, but I believe the skills-based approach can begin to open the door to a broader range of students than what a college or a university normally attracts based on setting up new tracks that can help these students get to achieve their dreams.

[00:19:35] Jim Stellar: Well, it is certainly the case that in a public university, which cares not only about its mission, serving the public, but also about its enrollments because, like any other institution, it has to have students to run this institution. It is the things the students say about us that causes us to attract them.

[00:19:51] It's the word of mouth. And if they say that university was useful to me in getting what I wanted out of college, which is a better life then I think that institution will do well. So, this is a way that the marketplace is changing amongst higher education to make us focus on something that I like anyway, 

[00:20:09] Ricardo Torres: Let me amplify this point. So now let's go to the other end of the spectrum. As you know, we publish a lot of data and you know in the last 15, 20 years, 36 million students stopped out of their higher education journey. That's a lot of people and many of them about 4 million or so had completed two full years of education with no credential to show for it.

[00:20:38] And I know that many public institutions and private institutions are trying to figure out how do we you know, figure out how we bring these learners back. Can we get them back into the fold and support them? And what's really interesting. Jim is, you know, a school that adopts a plan that is skill-based and begins to say, let me look at my former student in a very different way.

[00:21:06] What are the skills that I actually ended up teaching them with my curriculum and, can I reach out to them and based on that, say, look Rick, I think we have an opportunity, if you're interested, to come back and continue your education down this track.

[00:21:28] Right. And you know, and again, if a student graduated 20 years ago, who knows what they're doing, but I think that's also possible, and you can figure that out. But if somebody graduated somebody stopped out, you know, 2, 3, 4 years ago. I think, then there's an opportunity here. I think for a school to be rethinking about enrollment and some of the opportunities they have to bring students back into the fold, this skills-based approach can actually help. 

[00:22:00] Jim Stellar: I really do. And as someone who was a provost at two universities Dean at one and interim president for a year, I must say that I would be greatly helped in that quest by having something like this, to show as the pathway and because the pathway makes it clear and that tends to move institutions, but that's a separate conversation.

[00:22:19] Let me ask you another question. This is slightly off the wall. Because for centuries, higher education has taught things like critical thinking. We could call them skills learning to learn. So, if I put it to you that that kind of learning, that kind of cognitive learning is enhanced by a little workplace experience and some skill learning, would you agree? And if you do agree, could you elaborate?

[00:22:46] Ricardo Torres: Absolutely. You know and what you just refered to are called many different things. I've heard it called 21st century skills. I've called them business skills. I've heard it referred to as many different things, which by the way, is part of the skills issue, right?

[00:23:02] You kind of need to get your nomenclatures. Everybody needs to get their nomenclature going in a standardized way, which is a huge, there's a lot of work right now going on underneath the hood to try to enable some standardization the open skills network. I mentioned credential engine.

[00:23:19] there’s another amenity really focused on trying to bring together, you know, what do all these credentials mean? And how do we talk about skills and might have those credentials. So, I think there's this real strong effort underway to do that. But as I mentioned earlier you know, businesses are havens for training, right?

[00:23:38] They spend billions of dollars on training programs and very few of them, unless they are attached to some university or college curriculum, have little chance of being accepted by an academic program for credit, there are exceptions, but those are the exceptions and not the rule.

[00:23:57] So, you've got this really interesting training mentality going on there because businesses realize that in order to retain their employees, they have to give them an environment where they can train and grow yet those environments of training and growth --And it could be things like communication skills, critical thinking skills. It could be abstract thinking it could be presentations. It could be public speaking, all this training that you're getting at a workplace is completely unreflected right. And when you try to bring it over to continue your education at a school and I think that, you know, that has in itself a huge issue.

[00:24:47] I'll give you two examples of what I mean. You know I was talking to some folks at the graduate school level for MBAs and you know, one of the conversations I had with them at one point, I said, so let me get this straight. Your average MBA student has got somewhere between seven to 10 years of work experience, but very little of that work experience is taken into account when they enroll into your program.

[00:25:11] And they say, that's right. You know, the cynic would say, well, we know why, right. It's all about the dollars, but is it? Or is it the inability to really, despite the fact that there are some engines out there that can help do that try to articulate, you know, prior learning and work experience into some type of academic credit?

[00:25:31] It's just too much work, right? There's a lot of friction. It's work to do it. And I think that that is a huge lost opportunity. It really is a huge, lost opportunity because businesses do a good job because they have to, they have been training their employees how to be good team players, right. how to demonstrate critical thinking skills, how to write, how to present. Right? These are all the skills that you were just talking about. Right. And yet, that doesn't get reflected in the skills nomenclature that we talk about here. So, I think that is just a tremendous opportunity where there can be a synchronizing of this type of learning.

[00:26:22] Now I think that schools that coordinate with businesses on apprenticeships and internships, where there's a clear understanding of what is actually being learned, to your point the six months for all these programs? I think that’s a demonstration of the tighter type of collaboration you can have but imagine a world where someone's working for three years or four years, and then they come back to a school and they say, I'd like to continue my training and development of your skills, what can you do for me? And the answer, you know, maybe it's something other than, well, we can get you to a master's degree, right. Or a baccalaureate. It's different. Right, but that's in line with the education mission of the school, and yet continues the journey of learning for the learner. And that's the fundamental transformation that I believe that skills-based learning is going to have.

[00:27:18] And Jim, I'll give you one anecdote here. I think, we've been talking about skills for a while and, what's different today. I think what's different today is that has actually had a couple of major impacts on industry and the COVID time period. Right. I'm going to talk about not just COVID, but the time period, let's just call it.

[00:27:37] I mean, I remember we pulled our folks in March of 2020, March 15th and didn't look back and we're still not on site yet. But a few things happened along the way. I think this country had a massive awakening you know, with the George Floyd issue and just this whole focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion where it is now a focus and understanding that when we talk about employment, when we talk about opportunity, when we talk about education, it's about identifying and addressing where the inequities are and then putting systems in place that improve that situation. And I believe that skill-based opportunities can play a huge role in that. So that's number one, but number two, and just as important is that we have a huge shortage of skilled people right now, right? And the businesses are stepping up to the plate. They're investing and making skill based, training a priority, and they're putting money behind it.

[00:28:41] And the reason they're putting money behind it is because they know that the return on investment is gigantic of being able to recruit the right learners with the right skills at the right time. And I think that is what they're trying to do. And to the degree that schools can partner with industry and enabling that continuum to work efficiently and effectively through a skills-based curriculum, employers will be able to partner with schools, 

[00:29:11] Jim Stellar: I think that's absolutely correct. And I think the students also get this in some sort of authentic, sensing, intuitive way and they turn on and I think they put more time on task and I could even argue as a neuroscientist that their brains work a little better and they learn a little more per hour.

[00:29:28] They put in because they're inspired. So, I want to acknowledge that we're coming close to the end of time and just ask if there's anything that you want to add to this absolutely fascinating conversation. And thank you for that. Something you'd like to end on. 

[00:29:44] Ricardo Torres: I would say there's two things that I'd like to really talk about. Number one, is that a skills journey is not a journey that's solely the responsibility of a school. It's not solely the responsibility of a career counselor. It's not solely the responsibility of an employer, right? The learner becomes the beneficiary, but it takes a village to make this work. And there needs to be alignment between if you're a public entity like in New York, between for example, the state economic development plans and the priorities for the state and the school's ability to then help get that pipeline going. Because it's all about jobs and get that pipeline going and extend that pipeline beyond the traditional universe of learners. Right? And this is about really creating opportunity for all. This is the moment that's in front of us right now, but it takes this type of coordination between the public entities and the state and the employers of the state, because with that alignment, the skills will become a factor in helping to shape this pipeline going forward. And I've never seen the need for this type of focus more than I've seen it today.

[00:31:14] So I think that's the first point that I would make. The second is I mentioned it a little bit earlier, the work that we're doing with Indiana and the Indiana Achievement Wallet the work that's going on there with our partners Goodwill foundation, Markle, which are communities of care and support systems combined with Western Governor's University, IQ4, IBM and the Clearinghouse, all of this work that's coming together.

[00:31:38] You know, and we have Ivy Tech also participating is creating this ecosystem where a person who wants to understand what they need to do to complement what they've done so far in their life to get to the next step is it's taking the friction out of that process. And that's what this is all about. It is a really important step forward, right?

[00:32:05] This stuff doesn't happen by magic, right? It takes the four components that I mentioned working together. It really has to be brought together with the underlying tech that supports a highly flexible extensible system, but it takes coordination. But I will tell you that I am very hopeful that this environment that we're in right now is going to catalyze a significant change in how we begin to look at education and workforce pathways well into the future and the recognition that it's not just traditional, but it's non-traditional and that it's going to swirl and that there's this baton passing that happens between business and academia and academics over the course of a life.

[00:33:00] And that is the journey that we're on now. And frankly, Jim, I am so excited to be part of this. I feel that we're at the beginning of something fantastic. You know and it's going to be a change in how we think about the future of work and the role of education in fulfilling and preparing learners for their next transition.

[00:33:24] Jim Stellar: Well, that was amazing. I can't think of anything to add Rick. So, I'm just going to say, thanks. 

[00:33:31] Mary Churchill: Thank you for listening. We hope you will come back soon for the next installation of ExperiencED. 

[00:33:37] Adrienne Dooley: As we continue to talk about the neuroscience and sociology of enhancing higher education 

[00:33:42] Jim Stellar: By combining direct experience with classical academic.