Growing interest in online training for medical certifications and a private university that’s offering credit for MedCerts and other microcredentials. Also, an in-depth look at outcomes-based loans and how online learning may be fueling dual enrollment.

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

A ‘train-and-hire’ model

The nation’s healthcare system continues to strain amid a severe staffing crisis. And the mounting desperation is prodding some employers to get more creative about how they hire, train, and retain healthcare workers.

MedCerts has seen growing demand for its online certification training, with strong interest in the 28-week medical assistant and 12-week phlebotomy technician programs.

The company has enrolled 55K students and roughly doubled its offerings during the last two years. Its fastest-growing segment is the train-and-hire model, where employers cover the full tuition and training costs for students.

“We are now helping several hundred people every month move from education to high-demand careers, and our pace and scale are still growing,” says Rafael Castaneda, MedCerts’ vice president of workforce development.

Stride Inc., a large online K-12 education provider, acquired MedCerts in 2020 for roughly $80M. The company’s 50+ self-paced career training programs in healthcare, IT, and professional development typically cost $4K in tuition and other fees. Most can be completed in six months, and the company offers on-demand support to all students for a year regardless of their program’s length.

MedCerts is not accredited. Students who complete its programs earn professional certifications through the National Healthcareer Association, the Pharmacy Technician Certification Board, and other organizations that offer nationally accredited credentials. Most of the MedCerts’ programs lead to more than one certification, and the instruction is tailored to the exams for those certifications.

Under the company’s employer sponsorship approach, MedCerts pays for the initial advertising outreach—which often is targeted to the ZIP code level—to recruit candidates for partner employers, who pay the training costs for each accepted student. 

“We’re actively partnering with large, well-known health systems,” says Castaneda. “We are seeking individuals to fill positions or receive training because we have an employer in that region.”

MedCerts is a training option for workers who receive education benefits through employer programs that are managed by Guild, EdAssist from Bright Horizons, and other intermediaries.

For example, during MedCerts’ first year of partnering with Guild, Castaneda says more than 1,100 students have progressed through the company’s training while receiving partial or full tuition benefits from 17 participating employers. Roughly three-quarters of those students pursued healthcare certifications.

The Kicker: “Hospitals and healthcare systems simply cannot find qualified, trained people to fill these good jobs,” Castaneda says.

Marketplace for microcredentials

Students do not earn college credits directly in MedCerts’ programs. But a growing number of institutions are offering transfer credit for its certification training. 

Most are large online universities, such as the University of Maryland Global Campus and the University of Phoenix. Excelsior University awards credits for many of MedCerts’ programs, including nine for the medical assistant track and four for pharmacy tech.

The certifications also can lead to transfer credits for students through MedCerts’ deepening partnership with Franklin University, a private four-year university with a campus in Columbus, Ohio. Franklin, which has transfer agreements with hundreds of two-year colleges, enrolls roughly 6K students, most of whom attend online and part-time.

The university’s FranklinWORKS Marketplace offers online courses, microcredentials, and certificates. It features MedCerts on the site, offering students transfer credits for 21 of the training programs, along with credentials from Coursera.

Franklin’s healthcare faculty reviewed each of the MedCerts programs. They determined that students can receive between six and 15 prior learning credits for completing that training, depending on the program, say Patrick Bennett, the university’s vice president of academic quality and planning, and Jonathan McCombs, dean of its College of Health and Public Administration.

As a lifelong learning institution focused on helping students get a job while they continue their studies, Franklin’s strategy, Bennett and McCombs say, is to include microcredentials both within and outside its degree programs.

“We view this as a natural part of our university mission: a value-add job-ready signal for employers on the way to the degree and a way to attract learners before or after their degree is earned,” they say. “We know that learners are better prepared when they practice their skills and apply knowledge while they are learning.”

Multiple local and regional healthcare organizations in Franklin’s backyard have agreed to sponsor students who are enrolled in MedCerts’ programs, or to hire its graduates.

The Kicker: “Our value proposition of putting the student on a path toward an associate or bachelor’s degree after they are eligible for tuition reimbursement is a win for all involved, but most importantly the student,” say Bennett and McCombs.

Paying it forward

The political outlook for income-share agreements remains murky. But experts say the regulatory picture for ISAs got clearer with a recently unveiled compliance plan that Better Future Forward developed with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

The plan from the nonprofit BFF reveals that the federal agency believes income-share agreements are legally considered loans, writes Ethan Pollack, director of JFF’s Financing the Future Initiative. But the CFPB’s position also is that the agreements are a different kind of loan, one without interest, which Pollack says should be a factor in the compliance requirements ISA providers face.

Meanwhile, two states have begun funding a twist on income-share agreements for career training programs: outcomes-based loans. This approach is quickly becoming a trend among nonprofits and governments, writes Lilah Burke for Work Shift.

Burke looks at the new Pay It Forward Fund from New Jersey. The state is managing its initial $12.5M investment with the nonprofit Social Finance to issue loans to students who enroll in a handful of cybersecurity, nursing, and welding programs offered by three community colleges. The loans come with no interest. Students must repay them with 10% of any income they make above a certain threshold.

The state and Social Finance were looking for programs that showed evidence of employer demand and high wages for graduates, Burke reports, as well as a good track record with lower-income students and a capacity to increase enrollments.

She writes that both critics and supporters of income-share agreements agree that how useful pay-it-forward funds will be in changing the lives of students will depend not only on the terms of the agreement, but the value of the education provided.

Work Shift: Income-share agreements get a rebrand—and new life
Work Shift: Income-share agreements get a rebrand—and new

ISAs, once the purview of bootcamps and other for-profits, are starting to take off among state governments and nonprofits under the new name of outcomes-based loans.

Dual enrolled, online

Recently released survey data from the CollegeAPP showed strong interest in online education from working adults.

Fully 80% of 150K respondents in the U.S. indicated interest in taking college courses online, with 55% of those who intend to enroll in postsecondary education and training in the next two years saying they are interested in taking all their coursework online.

This high interest is likely to persist, predicts Jack MacKenzie, founder of the CollegeAPP. “The pandemic has created a new learned behavior of getting things done online, in a health-protected environment, and without hassles of things like driving, parking, etc.”

Likewise, increased demand for online education may be helping to drive enrollment surges by traditional-aged students at fully online institutions and in dual-enrollment programs, where high school students earn college credits. An 11.5% spike this fall in dual-enrolled students was the key to leveling off the enrollment collapse in the community college sector, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found.

Changing perceptions about online education are partially fueling the dual-enrollment boom, says Amy Williams, executive director of the National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships.

“Given the massive transition to online learning for high school students across the nation, many may now see online courses from a college as more attractive or at least less of an unknown,” she says. “The basic rationale we heard most from students during the first two years of the pandemic was ‘If I have to do classes online anyway, I may as well get college credit for it.’”

Likewise, Williams says many colleges stepped up to train teachers at their dual-enrollment partner schools in online instruction, adding them to learning management platforms and sharing digital versions of assignments, activities, and simulations.

“We are seeing students who are acclimating to online courses, period,” she says.

Open tabs

Beyond Degrees

Skills-based hiring and training can help state and local governments to expand and diversify their workforces, according to a report from the Center for American Progress. These government workers hold bachelor’s degrees at higher rates than federal and private sector employees, notes the report, which encourages municipalities to reconsider degree requirements in hiring and points to recent shifts by Maryland and Colorado.

Nursing Apprenticeships

All 24 Alabama community colleges now offer at least one paid, state-registered apprenticeship, Rebecca Griesbach reports for The state is tapping apprenticeships to help meet workforce needs in several high-demand industries. For example, more than 60 Alabama healthcare facilities in the last six months have begun offering nursing apprenticeships at 12 two-year colleges.

Infrastructure Jobs

New federal industrial policies could shape the labor market while helping workers and employers, Joseph Peck, a research assistant at the Urban Institute, writes for WorkRise. The infrastructure law could increase the nation’s share of infrastructure jobs from 11% to 14% of all jobs. And the Inflation Reduction Act could incentivize up to 910K construction jobs, while the CHIPS Act could lead to the creation of 120K such jobs.

Industrial Policy

The Commerce Department–led $100B chip manufacturing and broadband access push may be the best—and only—bet for the U.S. to position itself in industries of the future, like artificial intelligence and supercomputing, reports Ana Swanson for The New York Times. But critics say it poses risks, noting that the federal government may not be the best judge of which technologies to back, and that mistakes could be costly.

Workforce Education

A new prototype Learn & Work Ecosystem Library seeks to collect and curate information about key knowledge, initiatives, and alliances that are taking shape amid a major transformation in workforce education. Leadership for the Credential As You Go effort led the creation of the library, which received support from a U.S. Department of Education grant. The community-supported wiki-style repository will be updated regularly.

Student mobility

Today’s students need a new learning structure—holistic credit mobility, Sarah Pingel and two co-authors argue in an issue brief from Ithaka S+R. The structure would fundamentally rework the credit system to make it easier for students to move among colleges and count outside learning. The brief digs into three areas—technology, policy, and practice—that need to change to make holistic credit mobility a reality.

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Thanks for reading. —Paul Fain

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