Short-term programs bring long-lasting benefits—when designed with students in mind

Shortcomings associated with short-term credentialing programs have for years been neglected. Too often these programs have led to low-wage jobs, including some that workers could have found with no credential at all. People who are Black and brown were routinely tracked into career and technical programs rather than directed toward programs leading to college degrees. Many programs weren’t designed with students’ needs in mind, and schools sometimes designed them with little attention to labor market demands.

Now however, educators, lawmakers and policymakers are changing their thinking about short-term credential programs. They’re improving curricula, raising standards, and backing the programs with substantial public investments.

To some extent, the pandemic pushed this shift to the forefront: Suddenly laid off, workers who needed new skills didn’t have two years, let alone four, to pursue costly college degrees. What they did (and do) need are industry-recognized certificates that quickly qualify them for in-demand jobs. Many students also need help paying for these programs.

As with other developments borne of the pandemic— outdoor dining, home offices, curbside delivery—what started as an emergency measure has become an effort to build on. Employers, educators, and policymakers now see short-term credentialing programs not as a temporary fix, but as a durable tool to boost educational attainment, employment, and economic growth.

“The best programs prepare students immediately for desirable jobs, well-paying apprenticeships, or further education.”

About one in five American adults now has a short-term credential. And those wanting to pursue credentials have more than 300,000 programs to choose from, in fields as varied as construction, computer technology, and fashion design. It’s a rich menu, but the sheer number of programs can be overwhelming, especially to students (particularly low-income students) who are unaware of their options or unsure what career to pursue.

At the same time, the quality of non-degree programs has been all over the map. The best programs prepare students immediately for desirable jobs, well-paying apprenticeships, or further education. They also build on each other. But other programs lack the content and instruction that assure students of any of these outcomes. Some for-profit programs even have left students with worthless credentials and mountains of debt.

To fulfill their promise, experts say, short-term credential programs must be held to a high standard of quality—one that should be clearly and universally defined.

According to the National Skills Coalition, an organization that helps states shape policies for  workforce development, a “quality credential” program is one that provides students with sound career counseling, job-related knowledge and skills, and equal access and opportunity. It makes sure that those who complete the program can demonstrate the competencies needed for available jobs. (Notably, doing so needn’t require a minimum of credit hours or “seat time.”) Crucially, the program must show evidence of employment and solid earnings.

The best programs focus on students. That may seem obvious, but in the past, too many programs have been designed to serve the needs and schedules of schools and employers. This has pushed many students into job tracks that lead to poor career matches. Quality programs, by contrast, give students the information they need to make highly informed decisions about their futures.

Successful programs also commit to equity. States, employers, and educational institutions know that they cannot achieve their attainment goals or widen their talent pools without creating more credentialing opportunities for people of color, low-income individuals, and other populations that postsecondary systems have served poorly for too long.

Finally, the most valuable credentials are stackable. That is, they connect and build on themselves in a way that encourages further education and leads to promotions and higher pay. Following this sort of pathway, a certified nurse’s aide, for instance, can build on his or her CNA certificate to earn another as a licensed practical nurse, and ultimately a college degree as a registered nurse. Although the practice has not yet been widely adopted, more institutions are awarding college credit for credentials and for work experience, designing postsecondary pathways that are carefully aligned.

When states have clear quality standards for credential programs, notes the National Skills Coalition, everyone wins. Students once daunted and confused by thousands of program offerings now have the information they need to narrow their search and find the programs that work best for them.

As to employers, clearly defined credentials help them quickly identify talent and tailor their programs to meet changing economic needs. A quality definition also provides guidance to providers, such as community and technical colleges, as they work with employers to shape curricula. And for state, local, and federal policymakers, a quality definition helps them set targets for attainment and create budgets to ensure that all students are served equitably.

Several states are now dedicating funds and leveraging federal dollars to create short-term credential programs, improve and expand existing ones, and ensure student success, particularly among underserved populations.

Virginia’s Fast Forward program, for instance, provides $13.5 million annually for more than 124 short-term, noncredit courses at the state’s community colleges. The program, launched in 2015, focuses on training workers for industries that are particularly hungry for them.

Under the state’s “pay for performance” model, qualifying students pay one-third of the tuition upon enrollment. The state picks up another third when the student completes the program and the final one-third when the student obtains a certification or a license. Students who don’t complete must pay the final third. But Fast Forward coaches work with students to make sure they do complete, helping them identify pathways and navigate finances and logistics.

Outcomes so far are promising: Over 90 percent complete their credential programs, and those who do are earning 25 to 50 percent more than they did before enrolling.

In Florida, a state heavily reliant on the hospitality business, the pandemic hit hard. Well over half of Floridians (58 percent) lost their jobs or suffered pay cuts or reduced hours because of COVID-19, and those who lacked a post-high school credential felt the losses most acutely. To help meet the need for more education and training, the legislature allocated $35 million to fund opportunities for short-term career and technical programs in high-demand industries.

The grants cover up to two-thirds of a program’s cost, including tuition, fees, and exams. The legislation, which emphasizes instruction in basic skills in a career context, specifies that one-fourth of the funds go to rural institutions. The state also is insisting its dollars be well spent: Florida institutions must refund the cost of tuition to students who fail to find a job within six months of completion.

Louisiana, for its part, has already taken a big step to boost educational attainment by allowing qualified 18-year-old high school graduates to attend four-year state colleges for free. But after age 20, that opportunity ends. Now, however, Louisiana residents 21 and older can take advantage of a program that provides state funding for those seeking two-year and short-term credentials that are stackable, transferable, and create clear pathways to careers and higher degrees.

Overall, short-term credential programs remain a small share of the higher education market, accounting for only 10 percent of higher education enrollment in 2018, the most recent year for which statistics were available.  And four-year degrees remain the ticket to the highest-paying careers. Yet workforce and demographic trends have demonstrated the value of alternatives. From 2010 to 2018, the number of postsecondary certificates awarded by public colleges increased by 30 percent. And, as seen in these states and several others, policymakers are increasingly committed to supporting them.

From 2010 to 2018, the number of postsecondary certificates awarded by public colleges increased by 30 percent.

Meanwhile, advocates are pushing for the federal government to support quality credential programs in the same ways they support traditional colleges. In particular, they want short-term programs to be eligible for federal Pell grants, which now only cover degree programs of at least 16 weeks. Advocates have also urged that Pell be funded at double the current amount.

Virtually every state in the country has set a specific target for educating its residents beyond high school—acknowledging that in just a few years, two-thirds of all jobs will require a postsecondary credential. But policymakers increasingly realize that they can’t reach their goals by relying exclusively on traditional two- and four-year programs.

The importance of short-term credentials is becoming clear. “The concept has really bubbled up,” said Camille Conaway of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System. “People are seeing the essential skills being gained, and it has really opened their eyes. It’s proof that with just a little help, with clear pathways, it’s a game changer for many people.”


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