Monday, January 16, 2012

Certificate Programs for Labor Market Skills

President Obama and many others have called for a dramatic increase in the number of U.S. students obtaining four-year and community college degrees. It's a popular goal, and easy to announce, but frankly, quite unlikely. Higher education as currently constituted is extremely expensive, and neither the federal government, nor state government, nor prospective students are flush with the needed funds. In addition, many of those not currently attending higher education aren't prepared to flourish in that setting, whether because of lack of academic preparation, lack of interest, or both.

 Bruce Bosworth lays out the problem and limns a possible pathway in "Expanding Certificate Programs" in the Fall 2011 issue of Issues in Science and Technology. Here are some excerpts:

The underlying problems of stagnating workforce skills and the unlikeliness of college enrollment expanding quickly enough.
"Given current trends, the nation can expect little gain in the educational attainment of the workforce by 2040, at least as a consequence of young adults moving into and through the labor force. Older workers (ages 35 to 54) are now as well educated as younger workers (ages 25 to 34), especially in the percentage with at least a high-school degree, but also in the percentage with some postsecondary attainment. Thus, there will be no automatic attainment gain over the next several decades as current workers age and older workers leave the labor force. In fact, without some big changes in educational patterns, it is probable that the newer workers entering the workforce will have lower levels of attainment than the older workers leaving. Workforce attainment levels will stagnate or decline, and future economic growth will slow as a consequence."

"In the face of these trends, President Obama proposed to Congress in 2009 that “by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.” ... According to evaluations led by the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, retaking international leadership would require U.S. college attainment rates to reach 60% in the cohort of adults ages 25 to 40. But in 2008, only 37.8% of this age group had degrees at the associate’s level or higher, and at present rates of growth, this figure would increase to only 41.9% by 2020. Closing the gap will require a 4.2% increase in degree production every year between 2008 and 2020."

Certificate programs are growing quickly.

"Certificate programs take a variety of forms nationwide. They are offered by two-year community colleges, by four-year colleges, and, increasingly, by for-profit organizations. Programs vary in duration, falling into three general categories, with some requiring less than one academic year of work, some at least one but less than two academic years, and some requiring two to four years of work. The programs collectively awarded approximately 800,000 certificates in 2009, up more than 250% from the roughly 300,000 certificates awarded in 1994. Across all programs, awards are heavily skewed toward health care, which represented 44.1% of all certificates awarded in 2009."

A Florida study suggests that certificate programs are paying off, especially for students who don't traditionally attend college.
"A study of educational and employment outcomes for students in Florida also has suggested that certificate programs, in addition to leading generally to good economic outcomes for completers, may have particular advantages for students from low-income families. The study drew from a longitudinal student record system that integrates data from students’ high-school, college, and employment experience. It followed two cohorts of public-school students who entered the ninth grade in 1995 and 1996.

"The research suggested that strong earnings effects of degree attainment (associate’s, bachelor’s, and advanced) were largely confined to students who had performed well in high school. They were continuing in postsecondary study a trajectory of success apparent in high school. However, the research found that obtaining a certificate from a two-year college significantly increased the earnings of students who did not necessarily perform well in high school, relative to those who attended college but did not obtain a credential. These students were finding new success in certificate programs, changing the trajectory of their high-school years. Moreover, the study confirmed other research that found strong returns to completion of good certificate programs, even relative to associate’s degree completers.

Across all certificate programs, the field of study is an important predictor of earnings outcomes. In some fields, individuals who complete long-term certificates make as much money, on average, as those who complete associate’s degree programs. This seems to be because certificate completers pursue and earn awards in fields with relatively high labor market returns and then take jobs where they can realize those returns. Many individuals who gain associate’s degrees do not go on to higher attainment, and a significant number of them hold majors in areas that offer limited labor market prospects for job seekers with less than a bachelor’s degree."

The Tennessee model of certificate programs
"Tennessee provides a clear example of what is possible and of what works. Tennessee has a statewide system of 27 postsecondary institutions that offer certificate-level programs serving almost exclusively nontraditional students. The Tennessee Technology Centers began as secondary-level, multidistrict, vocational technical schools in the 1960s under the supervision of the State Board of Education and began to serve adults in the 1970s. In most states, analogous institutions were merged into community- or technical-college systems, but in Tennessee (as in a few other states) they continue to operate as discrete non–degree-granting postsecondary institutions.

The technology centers award diplomas for programs that exceed one year in length, as well as certificates for shorter programs. Diploma programs average about 1,400 hours and some extend to more than 2,000 hours. They are designed to lead immediately to employment in a specific occupation. In 2008–2009, the centers enrolled roughly 12,100 students, and they awarded 4,696 diplomas and 2,066 certificates. Collectively, the centers offer about 60 programs, some just at the shorter-term certificate level but most at the longer-term diploma level. Some of the more popular diploma programs are Practical Nursing, Business Systems Technology, Computer Operations, Electronics Technology, Automotive Service and Repair, CAD Technology, and Industrial Maintenance.

Most students in the centers are low-income, with nearly 70% coming from households with annual income of less than $24,000 and 45% from households with annual income of less than $12,000.... The average age of the students is 32 years ...  According to 2007 IPEDS data, 70% of full-time, first-time students in the centers graduated within 150% of the normal time required to complete the program. Every year for the past several years, at least 80% and sometimes as many as 90% of students who completed the program found jobs within 12 months in a field related to their program. ...

A growing consensus in Tennessee holds that the key explanation for the centers’ high completion rates can be found in the program structure. The centers operate on a fixed schedule (usually from 8:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Monday through Friday) that is consistent from term to term, and there is a clearly defined time to degree based on hours of instruction. The full set of competencies for each program is prescribed up front; students enroll in a single block-scheduled program, not individual courses. The programs are advertised, priced, and delivered to students as integral programs of instruction, not as separate courses. Progression though the program is based not on seat time, but on the self-paced mastery of specific occupational competencies. ...  The centers also build necessary remedial education into the programs, enabling students to start right away in the occupational program they came to college to pursue, building their basic math and language skills as they go, and using the program itself as a context for basic skill improvement."
The U.S. economy needs to build bridges from those who perform near the median and lower in high school to at least somewhat skilled jobs in the workforce.  I'm sure there are other promising ideas besides certificate programs. For example, I posted last October 18 on "Apprenticeships for the U.S. Economy,"
and last November 3 on "Recognizing Non-formal and Informal Learning." But trying to push most or many of these median-and-below high school students through a conventional higher education degree is not likely to work well, and would be extremely expensive. Time to start experimenting with policies that could offer a better ratio of benefits to costs.