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Accelerated associate degree programs allow students a fast-track to credentials and degrees

The Community College and Career Training Grant program represents a major opportunity for significantly changing how community colleges deliver high-quality worker education and training. While there was some disappointment that the $2 billion fell far short of what the Administration had proposed with its $12 billion American Graduation Initiative, let’s be clear: $2 billion is a lot of money and can be used for significant impact if properly applied.

One key opportunity the new program offers is to support efforts that accelerate associate degree and certificate attainment. Unfortunately, many community college programs take too long to finish, particularly for families already under financial pressure. Time is a major factor that drives many individuals – both adults and traditional age students – into low-wage, low-skill jobs that simply intensify the need for additional, and often costly, education in the future.

Fortunately, there is a solution to this problem. Accelerated associate degree programs that allow students to achieve job-relevant postsecondary degrees and credentials in a year or less are being tested by states and institutions with the goal of helping students earn quality credentials that have real value in the new economy. These include programs at the statewide Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana, and at the City University of New York.

Tennessee has been doing something similar for many years at the certificate level with a network of 27 centers. The most recent data from Public Agenda found that 20 percent of U.S. community college students complete their studies within three years; Tennessee’s rate is even lower, at 14 percent. But the Tennessee Technology Centers achieve a 75 percent completion rate.

The key is a program designed from the ground up for student success, one far different than a typical community college. Students sign up for a program, not individual courses, and advance as a cohort through an integrated series of classes offered in a block Monday through Friday – usually from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Going to school becomes a full-time job, and students do it on a predictable schedule that allows for family and other obligations.

Doing that will take redesigning community colleges and other postsecondary schools. They must accelerate the process of earning a degree or certificate, do more to cater to adult students and design programs that assure students can finish quickly and have confidence that they will find a job in return for their investment of time, money and energy.

Students know up front how much it will cost to complete the program and when they’ll finish – and how likely they are to find a job afterwards. Math, English, remedial help – all subjects fit into the context of a particular program so students see every lesson benefits their progress.

In the Tennessee case, of those who earn certificates, 83 percent go on to jobs in those fields. In fact, the approach has been so successful the state’s legislature passed a bill to reshape its community colleges along the same pattern.

I expect that the new grant program will propel the more modest current experiments with accelerated programs forward in a measurable way, and could be one of the biggest enduring benefits of this time-limited funding program.

Original question posed by Fawn Johnson in the National Journal

Encouraging Two-Year Degrees

The government is giving away $500 million to community colleges and other two-year degree institutions to develop "cutting-edge" shared courses and open educational resources, some of which will be available online for free. The grants will be part of a $2 billion program to be jointly administered by the departments of Education and Labor over the next four years.

The grants are geared toward workforce training. They are intended to increase the number of students who attain professional certificates and other industry-recognized credentials. They also emphasize the White House's goal of ensuring that every American gets at least one year of post-secondary education. Some of the grant money comes from the Trade Adjustment Assistance Reform Act, a law specifically directed at workers who lose their jobs to international trade and need retraining to find new jobs.

How important are grants like these for community colleges and other two-year schools to innovate? (Shouldn't they be engaged in such development anyway?) What kinds of "cutting-edge" courses and learning materials would give the administration the biggest bang for its buck? Is $2 billion enough of an investment to ensure that all Americans see a classroom after high school? How can one year of post-secondary education help the recent high school graduate or laid-off plant employee?


Kate Snedeker

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