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The Job
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A weekly newsletter about the intersection of education and work. By Paul Fain

Do frontline workers have enough time to use their free college benefits? Also, free Big Tech certificates for 200K learners and a call for intentional design around skills-based hiring. (Sign up here to get this newsletter.)

Tuition Benefit Barriers

Hardly a month goes by without a major corporation rolling out a free college benefit for workers. But amid all the hubbub, some question whether the small share of employees who take advantage of these benefits will rise.

  • Only 2 percent of employees who are eligible for a tuition assistance program actually participate in it, according to a recent analysis by InStride and Bain & Company.
  • Over three years, 5.8 percent of employees (2,200 people) participated in Cigna Corporation’s tuition assistance program, a Lumina Foundation study found.

Some companies say they aim to increase those numbers, by working with intermediaries like InStride or creating their own partnerships with colleges around the country and focusing more on helping frontline workers tap tuition benefits.

If they fail to increase participation rates, time may be a key culprit.

The top reason employees say they are not engaging in workplace learning is because they don’t have the time, according to a 2018 survey on workplace learning from LinkedIn Learning. Executives and HR managers agreed that “getting employees to make time for learning” is the No. 1 challenge for talent development.

Wally Boston phrases that challenge differently. As Boston, president emeritus of the American Public University System, recently wrote, entry-level employees “don’t have the time to go to college even if someone is reimbursing them or paying up front for that education.”

Likewise, he says many frontline workers without degrees had negative experiences in high school or college, and often have no desire to resume a formal education.

APUS was an early large-scale corporate tuition benefit partner. Back in 2010, the university became the exclusive education provider for Walmart’s tuition benefit program, four years before the launch of the initial partnership between Starbucks and Arizona State University, which has evolved.

APUS even offered prior-learning credit to Walmart employees based on their job skills. “Recognizing completed training and competency from job experience is the right thing to do for the student but is complicated, particularly when training changes,” Boston told me.

Before leading the online, for-profit university, Boston was a health-care executive. He says,

“We had undergraduate education benefits available for all of our employees, but very few pursued them. Online education was not available back then, and it was difficult to attend classes at the local community college or university.”

APUS, however, offered Walmart employees asynchronous online courses with monthly starts and assignments that were due at the end of the week. Textbooks were free, and tuition never exceeded the company’s reimbursement. Yet Boston says students still dropped out, saying they didn’t have time for classes because of work and family commitments.

Boston’s aha moment came when he read Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich, who showed why entry-level workers often have to hold down multiple jobs to pay the bills. 

“It’s tough to complete a three-credit-hour college course if you’re working full-time, much less if you’re working 60 to 70 hours a week,” says Boston.

Some employers offer their workers tutoring services and places to study, Boston says. But he is not aware of any companies that give employees paid time off to take college courses. And Boston isn’t optimistic that major employers will help workers find time for their studies.

What do you think? If you have examples of companies helping employees stick with their studies as part of free college programs, please send them my way. (I’ll be revisiting corporate tuition benefits often, including in a forthcoming interview with Jonathan Lau, InStride’s co-founder and COO.)

From Work Shift

Opinion: We need a national strategy on middle-skill jobs. Without it, here’s what colleges can do.
Opinion: We need a national strategy on middle-skill jobs. Without it, here’s what colleges can do. Three lessons colleges can use for career technical education now, from Jennifer Zeisler of ECMC Foundation.

What can higher ed learn from Airbnb?
What can higher ed learn from Airbnb? Many innovative companies launched in the past two decades have been two-sided marketplaces. Higher ed needs to realize that it’s one too, writes Tom Monahan, president of DeVry University.

Free Certs From Big Tech

The American Dream Academy is a new project seeking to equip up to 200K underemployed young Americans with skills they need to increase their career options or to get on a path to continue their education.

Run by Coursera and the Milken Center for Advancing the American Dream, the initiative, unveiled this month, offers $100M worth of free online course material designed by Google, IBM, Salesforce, Meta, and other large companies. The academy’s self-paced academic programs are designed to be completed in six months, assuming students study five to 10 hours per week.

To complete, students will be required to earn one of eight professional certificates offered by the above companies, in fields such as IT support, social media marketing, and sales operations. The program also includes two courses on workplace skills, including communication, critical thinking, business writing, and personal branding. Those courses are offered by research universities on Coursera’s platform.

Western Governors University has an agreement with the academy, making it easier for completers to transfer credits into degree programs at the nonprofit online university, which has one of the nation’s largest enrollments. And students who complete the Coursera or IBM certs will receive college credit recommendations from the American Council on Education.

IBM’s cybersecurity analyst certificate is one of the program’s featured credentials. The company’s participation in the project is part of its much broader career-readiness campaign, through which it seeks to provide training to 30M people globally by 2030.

“Part of the work we do is to mobilize the private sector globally to create opportunity pathways for underrepresented and historically disadvantaged communities,” says Lydia Logan, vice president of global education and workforce development at IBM. “We believe professionals can increase their chances of employment by completing our coursework.”

She says IBM’s free SkillsBuild platform currently is serving more than 1.5M users worldwide. 

The company’s collaboration with the American Dream Academy is the latest among many partnerships it is forging across nonprofits, industry, government, and education providers, Logan says:

“We deliberately choose to work with organizations—such as the Milken Center for Advancing the American Dream—that provide the capacity, expertise, and track record to serve people that are often vulnerable, underrepresented, or underresourced.”

Learners who participate in the academy can receive peer-driven supports. IBM mentors also will be available to help them with job readiness for cybersecurity careers.

“When they complete the learning path, learners are granted access to an employment pipeline, creating pathways to job opportunities without the need for a four-year degree, by emphasizing skills-first education and hiring,” says Logan.

‘A Visible Skills-Based Economy’

A new paper from the Education Design Lab riffs on a potential societal shift toward skills-based learning and hiring over the next few years.

This is a move away a reality where a $200K history degree gets a graduate a job interview with blue-chip companies that only come to campuses of highly selective colleges to find candidates, Kathleen deLaski, the nonprofit group’s founder and CEO, writes in the report’s introduction:

“We are now tantalizingly close to a world where my skills are telegraphed digitally to any employer around the nation, or even the world, looking for that skills cocktail. And it works the other way: all employers looking for certain skills can feed into a real-time skills ticker tape, signaling to learners and the learning providers that serve them what combination of skills will yield employment.”

How close, however, remains very much an open question.

The paper drew from thousands of interviews with students and community members over the last eight years, as well as with hundreds of “ecosystem leaders.” It argues that the focus on skills is helping to reshape relationships between learning institutions, learners, and employers.

Each of these groups has a role to play in ensuring that a shift to a “visible” skills-based economy doesn’t have unintended consequences, according to the report, particularly those that risk perpetuating or worsening inequities for learners. So do states, associations, intermediary organizations, and technology vendors.

Being intentional about designing skills-based systems means thinking about what might go wrong, or whether anyone will show up, the paper says.

The Kicker: “We still have the chance to design ahead of broad adoption, but there isn’t a moment to spare,” it concludes.

Open Tabs

Training Results

The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies reviewed research on workforce development programs to see what it says about outcomes for Black training participants. The short answer: not much. Of the 80 program evaluations the center examined, only 27 tracked the race of participants and used a quality “career pathways” model. Of those, only six reported outcomes by race—and only four saw positive returns for Black workers.

Federal Data

The feds should change data collection on online programs, Robert Kelchen, a professor of education at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, argues in a new paper. Current federal data systems don’t separate graduation rates and earnings for programs offered both in person and online. This is problematic as online education grows and some question the value of those programs.

Community Colleges

Ohio will award $5.2M to K-12 educator-preparation programs across the state, with a focus on students who could enter the workforce within two years. The grants will prioritize direct student aid and awardees that collaborate with community colleges to recruit students, with a goal of addressing immediate needs, particularly in special education and STEM.


Roughly 250K qualified women of color are missing from the booming U.S. tech industry, according to an analysis of the overlap between job requirements and the skills and credentials of women of color. The new report from Emsi Burning Glass and NPower’s Command Shift says Black, Latina, and American Indian women comprise just 5 percent (or 225K) of the nation’s 4.7M tech workers.

Female high school students’ aptitude for STEM-related occupations far outweighs their self-defined interest in those careers, according to a survey of 116K juniors and seniors conducted by YouScience. For example, female respondents had more than 10 times the aptitude relative to their interest in architecture and engineering careers, and four times the aptitude for careers in computers and mathematics.

Dominion Energy is seeking to encourage Latino students who are interested in STEM careers by partnering with the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities to support 1,250 students at seven colleges and universities. The new $2M program will create free, credit-bearing summer bridge programs for Latino high school students, drawing from a model created by Utah Valley University.

College and Careers

“The false choice between personal growth or a decent paycheck isn’t serving young people well,” Rebecca Koenig writes in her EdSurge feature on nine teens’ reflections on life after high school. “Their ambitions demand that adults reduce barriers to higher education in the long term and create an array of other options in the short term that speak deeply to young people’s values, genuinely serve their best interests, and help them get to college eventually if that’s where they want to go.”

Thanks for reading. I’ve overbooked myself at ASU+GSV. But please say hi if you’re out in San Diego next week. —@paulfain

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