In recent years, the debates about proposals to expand the federal Pell Grant program to pay for short-term workforce programs offered at community colleges have been lively.

Several states have taken matters into their own hands, using federal stimulus dollars to provide aid to adult learners seeking short-term certificates and certifications. These state initiatives offer essential insights into how we can better connect low-income workers—particularly workers of color—to good jobs.

Short-term credentials aren’t new. At least 5 percent of U.S. adults have a quality certificate as their highest form of education. Short-term credentials can have real value: Workers with a certificate or certification have median earnings of $45,000, compared to just $30,000 for individuals with only a high school education.

And workers want these credentials, with recent polling showing that many adults would enroll in skills training over degree programs.

It’s not surprising, then, that many states see these programs as part of their economic recovery strategies. At least a dozen states have used some portion of their federal funding under the March 2020 CARES Act to expand access to training programs at community colleges. One example is Michigan’s Futures for Frontliners program, which funds training for individuals employed in essential jobs during the height of the recession.

  • Louisiana’s ReBoot Your Career Program provided $10 million to help up to 5,000 workers who lost jobs because of the pandemic.
  • North Carolina’s GEER Scholarship program provided $15 million for North Carolina residents pursuing short-term credentials.
  • Texas’ Reskilling Support Fund Grant Program provided $46.5 million to support completion of college programs leading to degrees and enrollment in short-term workforce credentials.
  • Florida allocated $35 million to support a new Rapid Credentialing Grant to assist students in programs they can complete within 18 weeks.

While these programs are all temporary, Florida seeks to make its program permanent. A new bill in the state legislature would create a new “Open Door” grant program for workforce credentials. The bill establishes a state framework to identify credentials that lead to middle-class and higher-wage jobs. Only credentials that meet quality standards would receive funds under Open Door.

Although there are some differences among the various state models, these programs’ key feature is a focus on helping adults quickly earn a credential that has value in the labor market. As states consider expanding and sustaining these programs, they should require:

  • Quality. There are nearly 1 million different credentials offered across the United States, and jobseekers and businesses are often confused about how those credentials lead to jobs. This confusion can create challenges for states when they try to identify the credentials that deserve state funds. States should set frameworks with minimum quality criteria for short-term credentials. Lumina Foundation recently supported a series of workshops offered by Education Strategy Group and National Skills Coalition to help Arizona, Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, and Rhode Island begin setting quality criteria.
  • Focus on outcomes and earnings. While short-term credentials can have solid economic returns, they don’t work as well for women and workers of color. Research shows that Black, and Hispanic and Latino adults generally have median earnings of $10,000 to $20,000 less than whites in comparable jobs. Women with shorter-term credentials make much less on average than men. These gaps reflect inequities in employment and education based on race and gender. States expanding access to financial aid for short-term credentials should address these unjust outcomes.
  • Opportunities for more learning. Short-term credentials provide a dual benefit: They can quickly offer high-wage jobs for participants while also helping adults on a path to further education. Some states have embedded short-term programs as a first step to an associate degree. Lumina will be supporting several states and community colleges to implement this “Credential as You Go” model. To best serve working adults, the colleges will also be sure that busy students have the supports they need in culturally relevant ways to finish their short-term credentials and degrees.

Kermit Kaleba and Amber Garrison Duncan are strategy directors at Lumina Foundation, an independent, private foundation in Indianapolis committed to making opportunities for learning beyond high school available to all. Lumina Foundation does not support or oppose specific legislative proposals at the state or federal level.

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