Photo by Matt Duncan on Unsplash

Welcome back. This week’s newsletter looks at a community college program mapper that features data on jobs, the Biden administration’s opening salvo on income share agreements, and confusion about the bootcamp market and why it matters. (Sign up here to get this newsletter.)

‘A Prix Fixe Menu’

Charting a path to a degree is often a challenge for community college students. They face bewildering course catalogs and huge caseloads for academic advisers but typically lack relatives or friends who have attended college and can help them navigate the system.

As a result, students on average rack up 82 credits when earning an associate degree—22 more than they should need.

The guided pathways approach to community college reform seeks to create a clear, structured path for students to earn a credential. California in particular jumped on this concept, spending $150 million in 2018 on its guided pathways framework.

Community colleges could be described as a smorgasbord of classes before guided pathways, says Craig Hayward, dean of institutional effectiveness at Bakersfield College, which is located in California. “The idea was basically, ‘Take some of this, take some of that … sample things and see what you like. Eventually you will find your groove,’” he says.

Guided pathways, however, are more like a prix fixe menu where the student picks a program of study and sets their goals, says Hayward. The college then hands them a map with the best way to get there.

To develop the map, Bakersfield College for the past three years has worked with the California community college system to create its Program Pathways Mapper, a customized visual representation of the course catalog.

Current and prospective students can use the site to: 

  • Pick a pathway, then see the Certificates and Degrees Map, which lists the various degrees, certificates, and awards.
  • Below the map is the Career Explorer, which presents potential careers with descriptions, job growth predictions, and the average expected salary range.
  • Students also get a brief description of the credential program and a term-by-term map for choosing the correct courses to progress toward completion.

“It’s a very powerful tool for helping students visualize and realize their future,” says Hayward.

Program mapping is a faculty-driven process. Prior to the tool’s creation, Hayward says, faculty members, counselors, and support staff would puzzle out a term-by-term sequence on paper (or in Excel or Word). These maps are less flexible, however, and lack nuance about transfer destinations. They also are hard to publicize and lack the mapper’s data capabilities.

The project has expanded. Almost 50 other community colleges in the state now are on the platform, as are several campuses of the California State University and University of California systems. For example, Cal State Bakersfield, with funding from College Futures, has created 2+2 transfer program maps for students who transfer from Bakersfield College. 

The colleges have been working with Concentric Sky on the program mapper. The software development firm has played a prominent role in the movement to create open digital badges.

“The single most popular response we consistently get when we show the program mapper to educators is, ‘I wish we had this when I was in school,’” says Wayne Skipper, founder and CEO of the Oregon-based Concentric Sky.

Career Exploration: The tool uses federal data to give students information about average salaries and job growth. All the numbers come from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“This is a primary source for most companies that sell labor market data,” says Skipper. “Many states also openly publish their own data.”

Concentric Sky is working on other initiatives that feature open data and information about connections between education and jobs, including work with the Open Skills Network and program mapping with Western Governors University. Skipper says,

“We’re involved in a number of projects that seek to move beyond the traditional monetization-driven models that permeate ed tech.”

After hearing positive reviews about the new tool from student focus groups, Bakersfield gave the mapper more prominent billing. The maps now are featured in the course catalog and used by outreach staff and counselors.

Ideally, Hayward says, pathway maps will be freely available and searchable online for students, beginning in high school and all the way through their university experience. Early returns show that the mapper can boost equity by eliminating gaps in understanding how to manage college for first-generation and underrepresented students.

The Kicker: “The endgame for the program mapper is a world where students don’t lose a single credit as part of the transfer process because they are following pathways that have been validated and agreed upon by faculty at the college and the university ahead of time,” Hayward says.

From Work Shift: The Bootcamp Market

Is the ‘bootcamp’ market really in the millions?
Is the ‘bootcamp’ market really in the millions?

A new national survey finds that 4 percent of American adults say they are enrolled in a tech bootcamp. Experts say that’s absurdly high—and a sign of people’s confusion about training options and the jobs they open up.

ISAs and the CFPB

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau this week took a shot across the bow of the small but growing income share agreement industry.

Loosely defined, an ISA fronts tuition costs for students in exchange for a cut of their income for a set amount of time after college. This form of alternative financing is available for students who attend four-year and career education programs, as well as historically Black colleges and universities.

ISAs aren’t regulated like private student loans. And even some advocates for the agreements have argued that consumer protections are needed for the industry to scale up without posing substantial risks to students.

The Biden administration’s method for imposing order on ISAs (or for seeking to curb their development, depending on your perspective) appears to be through the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The CFPB was created during the Obama administration and largely went on a forced hiatus during the Trump years.

This week the CFPB said that Better Future Forward, a nonprofit ISA provider focused on disadvantaged student groups, falsely represented that its ISAs are not loans and do not create debt. As a result, the federal agency said Better Future Forward failed to provide required disclosures for private education loans (including the APR).

“The ISA industry has tried to evade oversight by claiming that its products are not loans,” said Dave Uejio, the CFPB’s acting director. “But regardless of the name on the label, these products are credit and have to comply with federal consumer protections. The ISA industry cannot pretend that core consumer protection laws do not apply to their products.”

No penalties were imposed on Better Future Forward, which the CFPB said cooperated beyond what was legally required. 

“Given the promise of ISAs and their uncertain treatment within existing regulatory regimes, BFF has been a leader in advocating for policymakers to adopt clear and protective guardrails for the emerging ISA space,” Kevin James, CEO of Better Future Forward, said in a statement.

After the news broke, the Student Borrower Protection Center wrote to the U.S. Department of Education, calling for it to address “ongoing violations” of laws and regulations related to ISAs, including loan co-branding by colleges with ISA providers.

The CFPB’s order is likely to roil the ISA industry. It also raises a host of complex issues the bureau will need to resolve, including how to disclose APR and ISA contract terms.

But the action also could depolarize the debate over ISAs.

Income share agreements offer the potential to improve access, affordability, accountability, and equity in postsecondary education, Ethan Pollack, a director at JFF who leads the group’s Financing the Future project, wrote in a blog item about the order’s impact. This is particularly true in the short-term credential market, he says, where federal financial aid often is unavailable.

However, Pollack says, this potential has been hampered by a lack of clarity in the regulatory treatment of ISAs, both at the federal and state level.

The Kicker:

“CFPB’s move this week to regulate ISAs under the Truth in Lending Act could be a positive step forward, creating regulatory certainty for ISA providers and greater protections for learners themselves,” Pollack says. “But what CFPB does next is important: it should provide clear guidance to industry on how to comply with the law, guidance that thoughtfully recognizes the unique structure of ISAs.”

Open Tabs

Proposed Funding

The Democrat-led U.S. House Committee on Education and Labor released its $761B portion of the Biden administration’s proposed $3.5T “build back better” plan, which faces headwinds. The proposals include:

  • $80B for workforce development, including expansions of registered apprenticeships and training for direct care workers.
  • $2B over four years for a TAACCCT-style grant.
  • $111B for higher education, including two years of tuition-free community college, a $500 boost to the maximum Pell Grant award, and $9 billion on retention and completion grants.


More than half of U.S. childcare providers are reporting that their staffing problems have worsened over the past 18 months, according to a recent survey cited by Emily Tate of EdSurge. Tate reported that parents in “childcare deserts” are relying on unlicensed facilities where caretakers often supervise large numbers of children.

The child development center at Pikes Peak Community College is operating at 35 percent capacity due to health restrictions and staffing shortages, The Denver Post reported in an article about two-year college enrollment declines across Colorado. The center has 167 names on its wait list. “I have to go to Pikes just for the childcare,” a student said.

Online Education

“Historically, there have been many assumptions, obstacles, and even stigmas associated with large-scale online learning within higher education,” Joseph I. Castro, chancellor of the California State University system, wrote in an essay published by the American Council on Education. “Due to a move made out of necessity, we now know many of them to be false. As the largest and most diverse public university in the country, it’s obvious that these efforts can grow our presence even further.”

College Mergers

“Consolidating a two-year and a four-year institution and retaining both missions has certain advantages over consolidating institutions of the same type,” according to a new report from Ithaka S+R on public college mergers. And without an explicit focus on equity during the planning stage for a consolidation, the analysis found that it’s far from certain that minoritized students will benefit from one.

Equity and Jobs

Job openings hit a record high of 10.9 million in July, while the number of hires fell slightly to 6.7 million and four million workers quit their jobs, according to new federal data. There were more job openings in every industry category than there were pre-pandemic.

“The only times in the last four decades that U.S. workers without college degrees saw rapid, sustained improvements in working conditions were during similar periods of labor scarcity,” David Autor, an MIT economics professor who co-directed the M.I.T. Task Force on the Work of the Future, wrote in The New York Times. “When employers pay more for human labor, they have an incentive to use it more productively.”

A hot labor market won’t eliminate racial and ethnic unemployment gaps, according to a new article published by the Brookings Institution, which argued for policies to reduce structural barriers for disadvantaged workers. The piece cites several proposals from the Hamilton Project, including one for federal incentives to bridge the divide between higher education and the workforce system.

What did I miss? Catch you next week. —PF @paulfain

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