This week is a Work Shift takeover. We look at Colorado’s move to retroactively award associate degrees, states getting creative about the care infrastructure, and the broader debate around whether training counts as infrastructure. Paul Fain will be back next week with his regular newsletter. (Sign up here to get it.)

Retroactive degrees in Colorado

Colorado will allow four-year colleges to grant associate degrees to those who dropped out. Will it make a difference?
Colorado will allow four-year colleges to grant associate degrees to those who dropped out. Will it make a difference?

More than 13,000 Colorado residents have earned at least 70 college credits at four-year public universities in the past five years but stopped short of a degree. Now, a new Colorado law lets universities award those students an associate degree.

National experts told reporter Jason Gonzales that they don’t expect retroactive associate degrees to immediately improve people’s job prospects—though they might, depending on the local labor market.

Tania LaViolet, director of College Excellence Program at the Aspen Institute, said the greater economic impact could come from motivating people to come back to complete a bachelor’s. In addition to changing the law governing two-year degrees, the state set aside $51 million, including scholarship funding, to help learners finish a bachelor’s. To be eligible for the money, universities must develop a plan to attract and support students who dropped out.

“That kind of financial aid, evidence shows that that makes a difference in solving a challenge that students are experiencing,” LaViolet said.

The kicker: That is especially true for working learners and parents. “The financial gaps that they have prevent them from completing their degrees because they’ve got to work. Sometimes they’ve got families to support.”

Read the full story by Gonzales, who reports from Colorado in partnership with Chalkbeat, over at Work Shift.

Getting creative on “care infrastructure”

The governor of Illinois announced last week that the state will direct $200M in federal funds to additional training, mentorships, and education scholarships for the childcare workforce over the next two years. As the federal infrastructure bill advances (see below) largely without funding for the caregiving and training “infrastructure” that President Biden wanted, it’s a sign that states are nevertheless feeling a pressing need and willing to get creative.

The big idea: States across the country face a massive shortage of early childhood educators—and Illinois has been out front in the push to rethink training and pathways for those workers. This new funding adds to the momentum.

About $150M will go directly to resources for workers, including:

  • $120 million in financial support, including scholarships, to encourage child care workers to pursue advanced credentials
  • $30 million to provide coaches, mentors, and navigators with tools to help child care workers pursue degrees

Why it matters: The state estimates that the funds will support about 5,600 child care workers—20 percent of those in need of additional training—who might otherwise not be able to complete a postsecondary degree by 2024. Degrees will be a major focus of the work, but quality nondegree credentials that provide stepping stones will be supported as well. The exact details are still in the works.

Joni Scritchlow, director of professional development at the Illinois Network of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies (INCCRRA), has been advising on and closely following the state’s investments in the early childhood workforce. “We are hearing anecdotally that Illinois early childhood employers are quite excited about this opportunity to assist their staff advance educationally via credentials and degree attainment,” she says. 

Beyond the money: In addition to providing new funding, the governor signed legislation to create an Early Childhood Access Consortium for Equity that will bring together the state’s two-year and four-year institutions to improve transfer pathways and prior learning credit for early childhood educators. The legislation specifically instructs the consortium to:

  • Ensure that the state’s four-year institutions grant “junior” standing to students who transfer with an associate of applied science degree in early childhood education
  • Determine how to assign college credit for incumbent child care workers who have a child development associate credential
  • Standardize methods for awarding credit for prior learning

As Elin Johnson recently wrote, the state and its licensing body for ECE credentials already have been working together to get institutions to adopt the same set of credentials, with a unified set of competencies and definitions embedded in their curriculum. So far 76 institutions across the state have adopted those credentials and begun to share assessment tools.

You can read more about Illinois’ work—and the broader movement around competency-based education in early childhood programs—over at Work Shift.

The kicker: “Ultimately, upskilling the incumbent early childhood workforce fosters racial, gender, geographic, and economic equity while enabling families to work, go to school and provide a safe and high quality environment for children to learn and grow. They are the workforce behind the workforce who held us together during the pandemic,” State Senator Cristina Pacione-Zayas (D-Chicago), said in the funding announcement.

Elyse Ashburn and Paul Fain

The broader infrastructure debate

The U.S. Senate this week is haggling over more than 250 proposed amendments to the $1T infrastructure deal. But as Politico reports, bipartisan negotiators expect the deal to hang together. And it’s looking increasingly unlikely that the bill will include any meaningful funding for workforce training.

Over at The Hill, Harry J. Holzer, professor at Georgetown University and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, argues that is a mistake.

“The creation of so many well-paying jobs by the infrastructure bill provides us with the best opportunity in years to lift the pay of American workers without college degrees—including women, people of color and the currently disadvantaged—if we can successfully train them for the opportunities now at hand.”

But he asks: “How will the U.S. finance such skills training and other workforce services?”

Last week in Work Shift, Lisa Lewin, the CEO of General Assembly, offered a related perspective—arguing that the talent infrastructure, especially in fields like tech, may be more critical to the country’s long-term competitiveness than its physical infrastructure is.

The kicker: “Education and training are the ‘roads and bridges’ to long-term prosperity,” she wrote.

Elyse Ashburn

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Building the ‘60-year curriculum' on short credentials
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The Univ. of Washington is a national research university and one of the top degree producers—yet is betting big on a lifelong-learning curriculum based on short credentials. The head of the university’s Continuum College talks about that move.

Thanks for reading! And let us know if you’ve got story ideas or want to submit a commentary piece to Work Shift. Paul will be back next week.—Elyse Ashburn, editor

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