Innovative college-employer partnerships point toward a brighter future
Human Work and Learning

Innovative college-employer partnerships point toward a brighter future

A mother helping daughter with her homework.
Teresa Smith, here helping 9-year-old daughter Da’Nyla with her homework is now a shift supervisor at her CVS store. Read more about Teresa’s story: CVS / An Rx for Workers’ Success.

By Julie Johnson and Haley Glover

The past year underscored America’s urgent need to integrate work and learning. As we emerge from the pandemic, employers need a highly trained workforce and educators need to connect learning to good jobs.

One institution—Empire State College in the State University of New York system (SUNY Empire)—is leading the way with innovative employer partnerships that help people learn, earn, and improve their lives.

Because SUNY Empire focuses on adult learners by offering competency-based degrees and credits for learning on the job or in the military, it was well-positioned to partner with employers.

So in 2019, SUNY Empire tried a new approach as part of Lumina Foundation’s All Learning Counts initiative to create new pathways to credentials and reward learning wherever it happens. “We recognized many employees gain college-level knowledge through work experiences in addition to formal training,” said Nan Travers, director of SUNY Empire’s Center for Leadership in Credentialing Learning. SUNY’s faculty review team began using competency-based frameworks to efficiently evaluate all kinds of learning.

That led to three new partnerships—with CVS Health, University of the Army (Army U), and the New York State Commission for the Blind (NYSCB). All three programs sharpen skills while saving learners time and money:

  • CVS Health. CVS, one of the largest U.S. retail pharmacy chains, asked SUNY Empire to evaluate its store personnel training and develop pathways to degrees. SUNY Empire decided that several of the company’s training courses could count for college credit. For instance, shift supervisor training could count for five credits, pharmacy technician training for six credits, and store manager training for 32 credits. These online courses were tailor-made for busy professionals. Soon, the partnership grew to include veterans through the “Hire Our Heroes” program. “The more we work with CVS, the more we are open to their needs and better able to respond,” said Ashley Frank, project coordinator in SUNY’s Center for Leadership in Credentialing Learning.
  • Army U. SUNY Empire reached out to Fort Drum, a U.S. Army reservation in northern New York, to evaluate military training that had not yet been approved for college credits. The team realized it could combine smaller training sessions to form a micro-credential, thanks to SUNY Empire’s new policy to add micro-credentials to degree pathways. The project evolved when Army U, the Army’s credentialing program, suggested expanding credit for these micro-credentials to students at both SUNY and CUNY (City University of New York). SUNY Empire is now working with faculty from both systems to make this happen.
  • NYSCB. NYSCB is a state agency that helps New Yorkers who are blind enhance their job prospects, skills, and independence. So when the commission asked for help in developing courses for a new direct service provider training, SUNY jumped at the chance. Now, SUNY Empire is helping NYSCB develop training competencies and assessments. As they evaluate the training for college credits, the partners plan to create micro-credentials that apply to an associate degree and connect to a bachelor’s.

Unique programs such as these pave the way as higher education seeks better, more systematic ways to recognize learning that occurs outside the classroom. But as Travers puts it, “this is just the first step.” With these successes in hand, SUNY Empire and a growing number of employer partners will continue to explore new approaches that help people get back on track through the power of learning.


Julie Johnson is the founder and principal of StrategyForward Advisors, a higher education policy and strategy consultancy in Washington D.C. She is the project consultant for Lumina Foundation’s All Learning Counts.
Haley Glover is the strategy director for state action and equity at Lumina Foundation, an independent foundation in Indianapolis that works for racial equity and opportunities for all to learn beyond high school. Our thanks to Nan Travers and Ashley Frank at Empire State College for their contributions to this project and this article.

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