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The Job: Credentials of Value

The texas state capitol
Photo by Natilyn Hicks (Natilyn Photography) on Unsplash

Texas plans to overhaul community college funding and tie it to economic outcomes. Also, one of the state’s technical colleges, which is far down that road, offers a tool for understanding skills college graduates need for jobs.

The Job
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Paying for Jobs and ‘Value’

Completion may no longer be the name of the game when it comes to state funding. For the past decade, it was. Just about every state rolled out a college attainment goal, and about 40 implemented some form of performance-based funding with enrollment, retention, and graduation as the most commonly used metrics. Any college degree or quality credential counted.

Now, states as varied as California, Indiana, and Virginia are shifting their focus—and their funding—to high-demand fields and to helping adult workers develop new skills.

Some, like Virginia, invested heavily in demand-driven short-term credentials before the pandemic. Others, including Michigan and North Carolina, have poured state dollars and federal relief money into targeting adults who need to retool for today’s labor market.

Thus far, however, the funding has mostly been for targeted programs, with names like Futures for Frontliners and FastForward.

Texas is poised to change that, with a plan to tie a large portion of the state’s community college funding to economic outcomes. As Kathryn Masterson reports this week in Work Shift, the new model would include a focus on high-demand fields and, for the first time, would attempt to define a “credential of value” in state law.

“It’s both an opportunity for Texas—they are in a position to determine that—and a risk,” says Nikki Edgecombe, a senior research scholar at the Community College Research Center at Columbia University, who studies community college finance and equity.

The state commission drawing up the plan recommended that lawmakers take an expansive view of credentials of value, and:

  • Include short-term, non-credit programs in the state’s definition
  • Allow students flexibility to use state aid for such programs

Other states will be watching Texas, experts told Masterson. Beyond its focus on the workforce, the model would provide the state’s colleges with more stable funding—and it would allot some of that money based on standard metrics like transfer to four-year institutions.

Florida’s performance-based funding model probably comes the closest to matching the Texas plan’s focus and size. That formula includes employment and wage metrics, while providing additional funding for degrees in areas of “strategic emphasis,” including STEM. It recently expanded the model to include an incentive fund for workforce programs at the state’s community colleges. However, the formula most heavily funds four-year institutions and degree programs. Like many performance models, Florida’s has been criticized for disadvantaging colleges that enroll large numbers of low-income students and focus on economic mobility. 

Masterson reports that Texas lawmakers are expected to pass a version of the performance funding plan in their upcoming legislative session, which starts in January.

If they do so, community colleges stand to see up to an additional $650M in state funding in the first two years, a significant jump from the $1.8B they are receiving during this two-year period. —Elyse Ashburn

Click over to Work Shift to read the full story.

An ‘Engine’ for Skills

As Texas moves forward with outcomes-based funding, one of its two-year institutions is offering up a free tool for understanding the skills college graduates need for jobs.

SkillsEngine was spun out of research the Texas State Technical College began 15 years ago to comply with a state mandate to align its curriculum to the job market. TSTC, which enrolls roughly 17K students across 10 campus locations, eventually used that research in deciding to eliminate 14 academic programs.

The project evolved into a living library of knowledge, competencies, and skills that go into the jobs of today and tomorrow. This digital “job skills machine,” as Rebecca Koenig of EdSurge recently described SkillsEngine, now includes more than 20K skills. The federal government’s Office of Personnel Management uses it, as has Colorado’s Arapahoe Community College and a healthcare education-focused coalition from the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities.

Identifying and mapping skills is nothing new. The federal government did it with its Occupational Information Network, or O*NET. On the higher ed side, the Open Skills Network and the Digital Credentials Consortium have taken on similar challenges.

The latter effort, which includes 12 research universities and is housed at MIT Open Learning, seeks to transform credentials into “tokens of social and human capital that can create new opportunities for participation in education and industry.”

SkillsEngine, however, is unique for having emerged from the community college sector. So far the tool has been offered as a business-to-business product. It is self-sustaining and has been courted by possible buyers, says Michael Bettersworth, vice chancellor and chief innovation officer for the college. Instead, the nonprofit organization will tap support from TSTC to offer its insights for free to users.

“We don’t want to be beholden to the Legislature or a foundation,” he says. “The market told us to do this—people were already using the free demo.”

SkillsEngine plans to launch its new platform early next year. It is inviting partners to give the tools a whirl while seeking investment for sponsored R&D. The platform also plans to aggregate input from users across higher education, employers, and workforce organizations.

The goal, Bettersworth says, is to continue developing a broadly available and applicable language for skills while leaving plenty of room for tweaks.

“You need to have some structure for the algorithms and people to make sense of it,” he says. “At the end you’ve got to solve problems people care about.”


Open Tabs

Credit Hour

As enrollments decline, students who enroll are taking fewer credit hours, according to a report from Ad Astra, an academic planning company. Students took roughly 15% fewer credits in fall 2021 compared to two years earlier, the company found. And just 30% of students attending Ad Astra’s community college partner institutions are enrolled full-time, compared to 64% of students who attend its four-year partner institutions.

Non-Degree Credentials

States can support learners without college degrees by developing the capacity of qualifications frameworks, competency-based education, prior learning assessment, and data infrastructure, according to a report from the Brookings Institution. For example, it cites an effort by Alabama to recognize the value of short-term programs to help students advance faster as they pursue further credentials.

Employers see potential value in digital credentials that represent the knowledge, skills, and abilities of jobseekers, including because they could better match candidates to jobs while broadening the talent funnel, according to a new report from the Digital Credentials Consortium. Yet their adoption remains limited due to a complex set of economic, political, technical, and cultural factors.

Worker Upskilling

A new global report from LinkedIn found that job seekers consider upskilling one of their top priorities and that mobility within a company can increase employee retention. The company also added features to its learning hub to allow employees to specify their career goals and to receive tailored learning recommendations. In addition, LinkedIn will offer skill evaluations to workers and guides for skills they need for specific job roles.

Outcomes-Based Loans

Self-sustaining training funds could help workers advance their careers in high-demand, lower-wage industries, including home care, says Jonathan Gruber, an MIT health economist and one of the architects of the Affordable Care Act. He told Tradeoffs that an initial pot of money from government or philanthropy can finance training for workers, who would pay back loans once they get a new job and pay raise, creating new training opportunities.

Career Transitions

Employers plan to hire almost 15% more college graduates from the class of 2023 than they did from the previous class, according to new survey findings from the National Association of Colleges and Employers. The potential increase would follow a huge surge in hiring last year, as employers unleashed pent up demand from hiring freezes or slow-downs earlier in the pandemic. 

YouScience, a college and career readiness platform provider, has acquired the National Center for College and Career Transitions (NC3T), which helps schools develop strategies around career-connected learning. The company said it would integrate NC3T’s work-based learning platform with YouScience’s aptitude assessment and industry certifications, which Utah and other states are using in K12 schools.

Will other states follow the move by Texas to increase spending for community colleges, while attaching new strings with that money? Should they? Please send thoughts my way. —Paul Fain

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