Photo by Timothy Eberly on Unsplash

Hello! This week’s edition looks at how continuing education units at research universities may be poised to bulk up their alternative credential offerings. Also, new research on accountability for short-term credentials and how the fast-food style “combo deal” works for nondegree programs. (Sign up here to get this newsletter.)

Don’t Forget Continuing Ed

As federal and state governments mull whether to expand subsidies for short-term credential programs, much of the attention has focused on what this would mean for students who attend community colleges.

Yet four-year universities also are poised to bulk up their short-term offerings, including through partnerships with online program management companies or with their own professional and continuing education divisions.

The University of Washington’s Continuum College is an established and innovative player in this space. With a range of offerings that are designed to stretch across a career—what Continuum calls its 60-year curriculum—the college served about 50,000 students during the 2019-20 academic year.

Applications have grown steadily in its 94 noncredit professional certificate programs, with 11,539 total enrollments in those courses last year. The most popular certificates at Continuum this year so far are: 

  • Game Design (new)
  • E-learning Instructional Design (new … also, meta)
  • Editing
  • Professional Technical Writing (new)
  • Storytelling & Content Strategy
  • UX & Visual Interface Design (new)
  • Program Management

Being offered online is part of the draw for game design and some of the other popular programs. The college also features scholarships for many of its certificates. And instructors in the programs often work for high-profile companies, including Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Nordstrom, and AT&T.

Rovy Branon is vice provost for Continuum College. He oversees all of the flagship UW’s professional and continuing education programs. Branon says some students last year said they were postponing enrolling in certificate courses until they understood how the pandemic would affect their lives and the job market. 

“We are preparing for a slightly higher-than-normal fall attendance this year as more people realize that some jobs are not coming back and, increasingly, that some jobs are not worth holding even if they are back,” Branon says.

Branon recently spoke with me about short-term certificates, the divide between noncredit and credit-bearing programs, and more. Click over to Work Shift to read the Q&A. But here’s a teaser from Branon:

“Each era sees the limit of scale through the lens of the historical moment. It is quite feasible, however, that as soon as 10 years from now, we will talk about those ‘quaint 50,000-student’ research institutions as a smaller, more human version of the million-plus-student mega universities we see potentially emerging (in the same way those of us at a 50,000 institution today might talk about a 1,500-student liberal arts school).”

Employer Tuition Benefits

The dollar amount of $5,250 is getting some attention in workforce education. That’s how much of a federal tax exemption businesses can get for the educational assistance they provide to each employee, including for college tuition benefits and, until 2025, for help repaying student loans. These benefits also are tax-free to the employee.

The max amount for the tax incentive hasn’t been increased since 1986. And some note that by not keeping up with the rising cost of college, the benefit only covers about half of what public four-year institutions charge on average for tuition and fees.

Additionally, while employers spend roughly $30 billion a year on tuition benefits, and expanding partnerships between big companies and intermediaries like Guild Education, InStride, and EdAssist are fueling interest in this form of worker talent investment, relatively few people are taking advantage of them. Studies have found that just 2 to 5 percent of eligible employees tap into available tuition assistance money.

Bipartisan bills introduced recently on Capitol Hill would increase this annual tax-free benefit to $12,000 and allow it to cover education-related tools and technology, including computers and construction equipment. The proposals also would link future increases to inflation.

“As a Member of Congress who is still paying back my student loans, I know firsthand how big of a burden the cost of higher education is for the working class,” said Representative Jason Smith, a Missouri Republican and one of the bills’ co-sponsors.

The proposals follow similar attempts to increase the tax benefit in recent years. And it’s unclear if they have a shot of becoming law amid all the big spending ideas being debated in Washington.

But policy makers are focused on workers and small businesses, says Katie Spiker, director of government affairs at the National Skills Coalition, which supports the bills. She says increasing the tax incentives could provide more access to education for workers and more tools for businesses to retrain their employees.

Stacey MacPhetres, senior director of college finance at Bright Horizons College Coach (Bright Horizons runs EdAssist), says the increase would help employees finish their college programs quicker, especially entry-level employees:

“On average the current limit usually only covers two courses per year. Sometimes not even that depending on the cost of the desired program of study.”

Loans for Short-Term Credentials

Experts point to gaps in data and research on the labor market returns for short-term credentials. But that may be changing amid the surge of student and lawmaker interest in these programs.

New research published by the Brookings Institution analyzes student outcomes and accountability policy for short-term programs that are eligible for federal student loans (many short-term credentials are not loan-eligible).

The report from Stephanie Cellini, a professor of public policy and economics at George Washington University, and Kathryn Blanchard, a graduate student at GWU, includes data on all short-term programs (lasting 300 to 599 clock hours over at least 10 weeks) that applied to participate in federal student loan programs between 2010 and 2019.

Of the 103 programs that met these criteria in 2019, the report found that 70 percent were offered by for-profit institutions, and nearly half were in cosmetology. On average, students in these programs borrowed just $750. Yet the report pointed to troubling findings:

“Despite reporting high completion and job-placement rates, we find that post-college earnings for students graduating from these programs are quite low—averaging about $24,000 per year, or $12 per hour for a full-time worker.”

Due to concerns about low wages, Cellini and Blanchard recommend tying federal student loan eligibility for short-term programs to a version of a gainful-employment rule featuring a minimum earnings threshold based on the average earnings of workers with only a high school credential. They also suggest that short-term Pell Grants should be limited to programs offered by public colleges and universities.

‘The Combo Is the Better Deal’

Newly released national survey data from the Strada Education Network look at Americans’ perceived value of nondegree credentials, a huge market that includes certificates, apprenticeships, digital badges, occupational licenses, and more. The survey focused on educational certificates and professional licenses or certifications.

Strada said 40 percent of working-age adults in the U.S. have completed this type of nondegree program, compared to 46 percent who have earned a college degree.

One of the survey’s top findings was that pairing a nondegree credential with a degree pays off in the job market.

Among survey respondents who had the credential combo of both an associate degree and a nondegree credential, 70 percent said their education made them an attractive job candidate. Just 43 percent of associate degree holders without a nondegree credential felt that way.

With an analogy that compared credentials to fast food, Holly Zanville said, “The combo is the better deal here.” Zanville, a research professor at George Washington University and co-director of the university’s Program on Skills, Credentials & Workforce Policy, was speaking at a Strada virtual event (which I moderated) on the survey’s findings.

Survey respondents with nondegree credentials reported median annual earnings of $50,000, which was less than those with a bachelor’s degree or higher ($75,000) but the same as associate degree holders and substantially more than high school graduates ($32,000).

Shorter-term programs got high marks. The survey found that 85 percent of respondents who earned a certificate that took between a week and a month to complete said it was worth the cost, compared to 59 percent of those who completed a program that took between six months and a year to complete.

Nondegree credentials issued by community colleges received the best ratings. And Black Americans rated the quality and value of nondegree credentials the highest among racial groups, the survey found.

This Week in Work Shift

A new take on certifying 'soft' skills—first for veterans, then everyone
A new take on certifying ‘soft’ skills—first for veterans, then everyone
A new initiative run by Education Design Lab hopes to crack the code on how to certify high-demand soft skills in a way that is both efficient and credible to employers.

Opinion: Education and training are today’s “roads and bridges”
Opinion: Education and training are today’s “roads and bridges”

The country must invest in the skills infrastructure—not just construction and transportation projects—to drive long-term prosperity, writes Lisa Lewin, CEO of General Assembly.

Q&A: Building the ‘60-year curriculum' on short credentials
Q&A: Building the ‘60-year curriculum’ on short credentials

The Univ. of Washington is a national research university and one of the top degree producers—yet it’s betting big on a lifelong-learning curriculum based on short credentials.

Open Tabs


Washington State has committed to doubling its 20,000 registered apprenticeships during the next decade, Governing reported. And last year it became the first state to extend financial aid to apprentices. The publication also said Alabama’s new Office of Apprenticeship is encouraging high school counselors to include “work scholarships”—the dollar value of apprenticeships landed by students—toward how they measure success.

The U.S. Commerce Department has announced $3 billion in new workforce training grants for distressed and underserved communities. The $500 million Good Jobs Challenge, for example, will invest in regional workforce training systems, including wraparound supports to help women and people of color complete registered apprenticeships and other training programs designed to lead to well-paying jobs.


Walmart this week said it would invest nearly $1 billion over five years in “career-driven training and development” for its 1.5 million employees. The retail giant also dropped a $1-per-day fee for employees to participate in its debt-free college tuition benefit. Walmart has been expanding this program in recent years and partners with Guild Education to administer it.

“Four in five Americans (81 percent) say companies should do more to remove discriminatory hiring policies or practices. And 78 percent say policymakers should do the same,” Peter Quigley, president and CEO of Kelly, the staffing firm, and Jamie Merisotis, president and CEO of the Lumina Foundation, wrote this week. Those barriers include bans on workers with a criminal record, they said, and bias in favor of bachelor’s degrees when short-term credentials may suffice.


“Every state should consider using federal stimulus funds to connect education and job training paths to labor outcomes, including wage increases,” Nitzan Pelman and Andrew Buher wrote in The Hill. Pelman is founder and CEO of Climb Hire, a nonprofit organization that provides short-term tech training. Pelman and Buher argue that governments “should stop funding programs, organizations, and companies that don’t change economic trajectories for the Americans they purportedly serve.”

A federal panel recommended the renewal of a national accreditor that oversees roughly 650 institutions focused on career education, many of them for-profits. Some panel members wanted recognition dropped for the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges, citing consumer advocates on the relatively low wages of graduates of some of its member institutions. But critics were unable to make the case that the accreditor was out of compliance with federal rules.

Labor Data

The historic surge in demand for unemployment benefits laid bare many of the underlying problems in labor and education data systems, found a new report by Annelies Goger, an economic geographer at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, and Janie McDermott, a research intern at Brookings. The report said these data systems should “embed user experience more fundamentally into the process and, in doing so, better serve the workers who have the most barriers to employment.”

I’m hitting pause on the newsletter again next week, because it’s summer and I need to get ready for ASU+GSV. Hit me up if you’re headed to San Diego? And let me know what I should be writing about when The Job and Work Shift return on Aug. 12?

Thanks! —PF @paulfain

A veteran higher education journalist and analyst, Paul focuses on the connections between education and the American workforce.