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Skepticism about companies’ college benefits

This week’s issue looks at employer attitudes about workplace learning, overlap between the Great Resignation and college enrollment woes, career development at HBCUs, and more. (Sign up here to get this newsletter.)


Workplace Learning Results

As more big companies offer free college benefits to attract and retain workers, skepticism has emerged about how many employees these programs will help.

Rollouts of new tuition benefits have generated mostly positive headlines. But experts have pointed to typically low employee participation rates (sometimes 2 percent or less). Recent news coverage also has emphasized that pursuing a college degree can be an insurmountable challenge for front-line workers who have demanding and unpredictable schedules at their jobs.

Likewise, some observers question whether online degrees earned through programs offered by Amazon, Walmart, and other employers will pay off.

“They’re doing this because it sounds great and it’s cheap—almost no one can use them, they are all online/cut rate degree programs,” Peter Cappelli, director of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Human Resources, recently told CNBC.

Outcomes and Microcredentials: A new analysis digs deeper on employer attitudes about workplace learning programs, as well as how much they’re investing in them. The report from Northeastern University’s Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy draws from interviews with 37 HR leaders and learning officials in the tech, manufacturing, and health-care industries.

Geronimo Rodriguez is chief advocacy officer for Ascension Seton Texas, where he leads the nonprofit health-care system’s workforce development and diversity efforts. Rodriguez told the researchers that employer learning programs should not be measured by how many workers are participating or how many classes they offer.

“I want outcomes or goals,” Rodriguez said. “What educational certificate or degree are they getting, and frankly, what’s the job they’re getting hired into? Otherwise, we’re failing the individual and our community’s quality of life.”

Click over to Work Shift for a full article on the study, or for a discussion with the three researchers who conducted it. But here are some of the key findings:

  • Investments by companies in employee learning appear to be growing, reversing a pre-pandemic trend.
  • Learning programs are now seen as a key competitive differentiator and vehicle for employee engagement and retention.
  • The more digital world of workplace learning increasingly includes microlearning, content curation, and “learning experience” platforms.

The report found that certificates and microcredentials may be an increasing focus of workplace learning, in part because shorter-term programs can meet employers’ immediate needs for job-related skills while also offering workers the possibility of stacking up credentials to a degree.

“Microcredentials help the employees demonstrate skills mastered much sooner than a traditional degree,” says Rashid Mosley, one of the report’s coauthors and an assistant professor at Northeastern University’s College of Professional Studies. “This can benefit the employee seeking to demonstrate specific skills to their existing employer or for future job opportunities.”

‘Snowballing’ Enrollment Woes

As businesses struggle with a tight labor market, higher education may be facing a prolonged enrollment crisis. (Don’t worry about highly selective universities. They should be fine.)

The two societal developments overlap. Both are about the disengagement of millions of younger Americans—including a disproportionate share of lower-income people of color—who are reassessing their options while the pandemic rolls on.

It’s still too early to know how college enrollments are holding up this fall, with firm numbers from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center due to arrive soon. But early returns haven’t been good—with flat or sliding numbers at community colleges in several states and declines at some four-year universities in the Midwest.

The National College Attainment Network’s FAFSA tracker shows how many high school students are filling out federal financial aid forms. The tracker can be a good predictor of future college enrollments. It found that FAFSA completions through Oct. 8 for the class of 2022 are down 29 percent compared to the previous year, and 44 percent compared to 2019.

The numbers are from just eight days into the FAFSA cycle. Even so, a 29 percent dip is bonkers, Bill DeBaun, NCAN’s director of data and evaluation, said on Twitter. “We’re down roughly two times as much over an already depressed figure. That’s the definition of snowballing.”

COVID Cohort: Disruptions to the pipeline from high school to college explain part of the recent declines in college enrollments, according to a new analysis from the Brookings Institution. It found that:

  • Since February 2020, young adults on average have spent less time on education and more time in the workforce while earning better wages.
  • A growing number of young people are disengaged and spending less time in either education or the labor force.

Americans with either a high school credential or some college education are earning unusually strong wages, the researchers found, which increases the opportunity cost of postsecondary education.

The Kicker: “This analysis provides clear evidence that the COVID-19 pandemic was a disruptive force to many young adults at a time in their life that is critical for their long-term economic security,” the analysis concludes. “In response, young adults changed how they perceive the costs and benefits to immediate employment and further investment in education—and many acted on it.”

Update on Futuro Health

A new training hub for allied health-care workers in California, Futuro Health, features an unusual structure and a network of postsecondary providers. The nonprofit was created in January 2020 with $130M in start-up funding from Kaiser Permanente and the Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West.

Futuro Health has a goal of graduating 10,000 licensed or credentialed students by 2024. The organization announced this week that 1,700 students enrolled during its first year of operation. So far, 413 students have completed training pathways in health IT, advanced telehealth, and medical assisting.

Under the model, students are offered free access to success coaches from InsideTrack who help them navigate nonacademic barriers.

“To make good on the promise of short-term and accelerated training programs,” says Kai Drekmeier, cofounder and chief development officer at InsideTrack, “we need to provide adult learners the comprehensive support they need to thrive during their training so they emerge prepared for the next step of their career journey.”

From Work Shift

Career development partnerships with HBCUs on the rise
Career development partnerships with HBCUs on the rise

Career preparation and workforce development programs at HBCUs are cropping up across the nation, as more organizations seek to invest in Black students and workers amid a national reckoning on race.


Opinion: ‘Stranded credits’ needlessly stall education, careers

Policies that deny students access to their transcripts because of debt needlessly lock low-income learners and people of color out of opportunity, writes Sosanya Jones of Howard University and Ithaka S+R.

Open Tabs

Community Colleges

President Joe Biden has said that congressional Democrats will drop tuition-free community college from their social spending bill, multiple news outlets reported this week. NBC News reported that the latest version of the Build Back Better Act, which Democrats are trying to enact through the reconciliation process, has been scaled back from spending $3.5T over a decade to less than $2T. But negotiations continue.

Apprenticeship Outcomes

Registered apprenticeships in construction trades in Wisconsin that are offered jointly by unions and employers lead to average income levels that rival those of bachelor’s degree holders and far outpace earnings of completers of nonunion apprenticeships, found a recent study by researchers from the Midwest Policy Institute and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Beyond Completion

The Strada Education Network announced a $10M grant program to support “equitable outcomes through and beyond college completion.” Institutions that participate in the Taskforce on Higher Education and Opportunity will be eligible to receive the grants, which will back projects that seek to help students make measurable gains with their employment, economic stability, and fulfillment. 

Dual Enrollment

Participation in dual-enrollment programs in California increased by 56 percent during the four years before 2020, according to a new report from the Public Policy Institute of California. Roughly 20 percent of dual-enrollment courses are in career education. Black and Latino students in general are underrepresented in dual enrollment, although both groups are equitably represented in some programs.

Youth Policy

The nation urgently needs an “integrated playbook” to help smooth out the journey for young people from school to college and work, according to a new report from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. The center said the Biden administration’s Build Back Better plan would move toward its all-one-system approach, which calls for employers to be involved in work-based education.

Online Enrollments

The number of students who were enrolled exclusively in online programs nearly doubled last fall (up 93 percent) compared to the previous year, according to a survey of 2,200 institutions by the National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements. The survey found more than 5.8M distance education enrollments in fall 2020.

Nanodegree Scholarships

OneTen, the Blacks in Technology Foundation, and the online course provider Udacity are offering scholarships to fully fund online training for 2,000 Black learners who do not hold a four-year college degree. The new nanodegree scholarships are designed to “disrupt the status quo” while helping participants gain applicable skills to start a new career in tech.

Employers as Colleges

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation is hosting a virtual panel next week on employer learning programs. Ardine Williams, Amazon’s vice president of workforce development, and Lydia Logan, IBM’s global vice president of education and workforce development, are the speakers. I’m moderating the chat, which is part of the foundation’s Talent Forward event.

Nursing Degrees

Eligible nurses from Emory Healthcare will have their annual tuition fees reimbursed when they pursue a bachelor’s degree in nursing at Chamberlain University. The new pathway from Chamberlain, which is owned by Adtalem Global Education, allows nursing students to combine funds from Emory’s employee education benefits with a grant from the university to cover the program’s full tuition fees.

Let me know what I missed? Catch you next week. —@paulfain

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