In Virginia, a growing demand for workforce programs

This week’s issue looks at workforce training at community colleges, including new data on Virginia’s performance-based grants and Work Shift’s deep dive on apprenticeships in N.C. Also how alternative credentials factor into 2U’s purchase of edX. (Sign up here to get this newsletter.)


Virginia’s Workforce Grants

Highway work hasn’t stopped during the pandemic, as any driver knows. And Northern Virginia has lots of highways.

As a result, student demand remained strong for the highway construction credentials and industry certifications offered by Germanna Community College, which has locations near Fredericksburg and Culpeper, Va.

“They wanted to stay safe. And they wanted those credentials,” says Martha O’Keefe, associate vice president of workforce and professional development at the college.

So Germanna’s instructors and administrators got creative to keep serving students in its workforce programs during COVID’s peak. The two-year college had quickly converted to online instruction. And Germanna worked with its top industry partners in highway construction, the Virginia Department of Transportation and the Virginia Asphalt Association, to assess student competencies at job sites, often via Zoom.

But because some of the highway construction industry certifications require pencil-and-paper examinations, Germanna began offering drive-in testing. Students sat in their cars while PPE-wearing instructors slid test-bearing manila envelopes to them on a tray.

“It was very organic,” O’Keefe says. “There’s no handbook for how to do this.”

Germanna led the state last year in total enrollments for Virginia’s competency-based New Economy Workforce Grant Program, according to the latest annual report on the grants released last month by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. 

The noncredit workforce grants have drawn national attention for the strings that come with them, for both students and institutions. They accompany the state’s FastForward program, which offers grants for short-term training (typically six to 12 weeks in length) that 24,500 Virginians have tapped to earn industry-recognized credentials since 2016. 

To be eligible for the workforce grants, academic programs must match up with high-demand fields. Construction, production, health-care support, and transportation were the most popular programs last year.

The state soon will have spent about $50 million on the grants, which began in 2017. But the program costs are shared by students and colleges:

  • Students pay one-third of the total cost up front, an average of $677 last year. They can use noncredit financial aid, training vouchers, or employer money to cover the fees. If students fail to complete, they must pay an additional third of the cost.
  • The state pays the institution one-third of the program cost (up to $1,500 per student) if the student completes training. And if the student earns and reports a credential, the state pays the institution another third. Virginia paid an average of $1,627 per credential last year.

The workforce grant program had 7,484 total enrollments across the state last year (some students enrolled in multiple programs). Germanna had the most, with 1,739 enrollments, 1,641 completions and 1,133 credentials earned.

Highway construction topped the list at Germanna, according to a SCHEV analysis, with 1,380 enrollments. Roughly one in five enrollments for the grants across Virginia was in highway work.

Enrollments in the workforce grant program went up 8 percent in 2020 even while community colleges across the state and the nation saw substantial enrollment declines in credit-bearing programs.

Outcomes and Equity

The 94 percent completion rate at the college slightly topped the state rate of 92 percent. SCHEV said 71 percent of participating students statewide earned a credential, and that number will rise due to later completions.

The median annual pay for completers was $31,607, up $7,050, or 31 percent, from their previous median salary of $22,895.

“The bottom line is these programs help students earn higher wages,” says Tom Allison, senior associate of finance and innovation at SCHEV.

The average age of grant recipients was 35, according to SCHEV. Men accounted for two-thirds of the enrollment—further evidence of the occupational segregation by gender that has long plagued nondegree programs in the skilled trades. Likewise, while Black students were well represented, comprising 25 percent of total enrollments, Latinos were severely underrepresented, with just 4 percent of enrollments. (White students were half of the total.) Roughly 10 percent of Virginians are Latino, according to the U.S. Census, while 20 percent are Black.

In addition, Black students were eight percentage points less likely to complete the workforce grant program last year compared to white students, while Latino students were seven percentage points less likely.

O’Keefe at Germanna says the college plans to in some cases keep using the so-called HyFlex online course model it adopted last year, which was popular with students and some instructors. And she says Germanna has noticed an uptick in student interest in technical and skilled trade programs this year, including more inquiries from recent high school graduates.

“Students are very eager to consider careers that they hadn’t before,” O’Keefe says.

MOOCs and OPMs

Coursera’s co-founders visited Inside Higher Ed’s newsroom before the MOOC provider’s launch in 2012. The strategy Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng described was kinda early Facebook—build the platform and attract users, then figure out how to monetize it. 

They gave a strong no when I asked if the company would move toward issuing college credits and credentials.

The for-profit Coursera’s business plan started emerging shortly thereafter with fee-based and verified courses. But Coursera later began offering degrees and course bundles, or specializations, with its university partners.

Flash forward to the company’s IPO in March, when it became clear that most of Coursera’s revenue (and $5.5 billion market capitalization) hinged on being able to charge some of its 77 million learners for short online courses, “creating a pipeline of certificate and degree students,” as Sean Gallagher, founder and executive director of Northeastern University’s Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy, told technology reporter Lindsay McKenzie for her excellent IHE piece on the company’s transformation.

The nonprofit edX has followed a similar journey, with less of a viable business plan. Founded by MIT and Harvard University in 2012, edX has reached almost 40 million learners, wrote L. Rafael Reif, MIT’s president.

Yet massive investment in online platforms during the pandemic fueled an arms race of marketing to students and offering money to recruit partner universities, Reif said. “The scale of the dollars had radically tipped the playing field. As a nonprofit, edX could no longer keep up.”

So this week the two universities announced the sale of edX to 2U, the publicly traded and high-profile online program management (OPM) company. 2U will pay $800 million for the MOOC provider, much of which Harvard and MIT say they will use to create a nonprofit focused on “reinventing digital learning.”

For 2U, the deal adds a suite of promising alternative credentials.

The company is betting big on its short courses, boot camps, and course stacks, citing growing calls from business and government for colleges to better align skills-based training with in-demand jobs. And edX, which 2U said it will continue to operate as a public benefit entity, has had success with college credit pathways, particularly its MicroMasters and MicroBachelors, short-term credentials that can count toward full degrees.

The Kicker:

“Credit is the gold coin of the realm,” Anant Agarwal, CEO of edX, said a few years ago when I asked about alternative credentials. “Because they’re backed by credit, it’s a signal of quality.”

Former apprentice Justin Padmos (left) at Fairystone Fabrics

Apprenticeships in N.C.

Funding for workforce education and training was left out of the $1.2 billion bipartisan infrastructure framework deal that President Biden has been pitching this week.

One possible reason: work-based learning programs remain too small to draw attention from policy makers who are busy with huge spending proposals, a well-placed observer told me this week. Apprentices account for less than half of a percent of U.S. jobs, with just 221,000 entering the federal apprenticeship system in fiscal year 2020.

Over on Work Shift, this newsletter’s new sister publication, veteran journalist Margaret Moffett gives a deep dive on North Carolina’s take on apprenticeships. The Greensboro-based Moffett writes about how student participation has doubled in the four years since the 58 community colleges took control of the program away from the state. 

The apprenticeships have become a national model, with 91 percent of employers citing a positive return on their investment (average training costs are $10,500 a year). But despite the recent growth, the state’s overall numbers remain low, with 12,244 apprenticeships last year.

Even so, North Carolina created pathways to degrees for apprentices—a key to ensuring that earn-and-learn programs lead to good careers.

The Kicker:

“How many communications majors do we need?” says Justin Padmos, a former apprentice who earned an associate degree in mechatronics from Alamance Community College and now works at Fairystone Fabrics. “They’re oversaturated and no one can find jobs. With the journeyman’s certificate, I can go anywhere in the country and find a job tomorrow.

New Apprenticeship Fund

Ryan Craig is bullish on apprenticeships. The longtime investor and author on connections between education and work, along with his investment partner, Daniel Pianko, this week announced the creation of an $180 million fund focused on businesses that are positioned to boost economic mobility with apprenticeship programs in IT and health care.

The Putting America Back to Work Fund seeks to help place 100,000 Americans into good jobs.

“We’re backing the buildout of an entirely new approach to sourcing and screening talent, and providing the vital last-mile training that workers need,” Craig says.

Virtual Job Recruiting

Work Shift also reports this week on the growing consensus that job recruiting at colleges will be mostly virtual or hybrid this coming year—and that could be a win for women and students of color.

This perception is bolstered by new survey data from Handshake, a major networking and recruitment platform, which found that 55 percent of women prefer virtual interviews, compared to only 41 percent of men. Students of color also reported a much stronger preference for interviewing virtually than did white students.

The Houston Community College system had success with virtual information sessions with employers, which the system didn’t do pre-pandemic.

“Students have so many things going on in their lives,” says James Mable, the system’s director of career and job placement services. “I need to always be thinking about, ‘How can I make the career services process seamless and one that meets them where they are in their life?’”

Shawn VanDerziel, executive director of the National Association of Colleges and Employers, said he regularly hears from companies that virtual recruiting has helped with diversity and equity. But he says the proof will be in this year’s hiring numbers for women and students of color.

Open Tabs

Short-Term Training

Congress should back a framework for investment in a skills-based, market-aligned postsecondary education, Scott Pulsipher, Western Governors University’s president, said this week in prepared testimony for a hearing held by the U.S. House’s Ways and Means Committee. “We must embrace a new generation of pathways to opportunity, including short-duration, competency-based, earn-while-you-learn, on-the-job, and apprenticeship programs,” he said.

Maine’s community colleges plan to offer free short-term training to 700 of the state’s rural residents to prepare them for remote work, Inside Higher Ed reported. Through online courses of up to nine months, “we can now connect urban-based companies with skilled workers working remotely,” John Fitzsimmons, president of the two-year system’s foundation, said in a statement.

Health-Care Expansion

Many smaller U.S. colleges are expanding health-care programs to grow their enrollments and to meet demand for nurses and allied health workers, reported Hallie Busta of Higher Ed Dive. The growth includes accelerated and short-term programs, with colleges increasingly working to align their offerings to regional employer needs.

Employability Certification

The Distance Education Accrediting Commission has partnered with QA Commons to use the group’s employability certification at four institutions—Aspen University, Martinsburg College, Bottega University, and American College of Business and Technology. The pilot program with the national accrediting agency will focus on career supports, employer engagement, alumni feedback, and transparency with career outcomes.

The Job is taking next week off. It’ll be back in your inbox on July 15. Catch you then, and happy Fourth of July. —PF @paulfain

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