credentialing students

Could this alternative to ‘free college’ work?

Expanding credentialing opportunities might be a viable option to free college proposals.

Increased federal support of high-quality occupational credentialing opportunities could be an alternative to a “free” four-year degree, proposes a new report from the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI).

The report finds that federal support of such programs, including the extension of federal Pell grants, could aid in closing the skills gap and offer an equally viable and debt-free path to middle-class mobility and economic security.

“The single-minded focus on college diminishes other, equally viable paths to middle-class security – such as in health care, information technology, advanced manufacturing, and other skilled professions – that require specialized occupational ‘credentials’ but no four-year degree,” writes senior fellow Anne Kim in the report.

Kim argues that existing higher-ed policy favors a monolithic view of postsecondary education–as a single block of time in the life of a young adult between the ages of 18 and 22 with a four-year degree as the optimal outcome. But this kind of framework neglects to acknowledge both students’ and employers’ needs in today’s rapidly-changing economy.

(Next page: The report’s three-part suggestion)

Current policy also sends the wrong message to the millions of Americans who opt out of college not because they can’t afford it, but because they don’t want it or need it to achieve their aspirations. Many people want jobs that involve trades or skills and don’t want a liberal arts education, and insisting on college as the ideal path tells people their desired path is wrong.

The report finds that many of the jobs that require a credential, but no college degree, pay salaries that comfortably put workers into the middle class. Such “middle-skill” jobs can pay as much as $90,420.

Importantly, Kim notes, quality credentialing programs can also be a valuable postsecondary alternative for older and nontraditional students for whom a commitment to full-time or part-time coursework in a traditional college setting may be unrealistic, impractical, or unnecessary. And because they typically take weeks or months to earn, not years, credentials can help workers who’ve been displaced rapidly redeploy themselves into new careers with demonstrated employer demand.

States also should support workers enrolling in high-quality credentialing programs that meet local industries’ needs. They don’t need to wait for federal action, but can follow other precedents, such as that set by Virginia, which launched a grant program for those seeking credentials.

Virginia’s New Economy Workforce Development Grant, started in 2016 by Gov. Terry McAuliffe with bipartisan legislative support, pays for two-thirds of the cost of obtaining a credential from a list of state-approved credentials and training providers that is updated each year to reflect
changing economic conditions.

The three-part plan proposed in the report includes:
1. Extending student financial aid, including federal Pell grants, to high-quality credentialing programs
2. Provide students with standardized information on the quality and value of credentialing options
3. Pay for it all with a modest new excise tax on elite university endowments

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Laura Ascione
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