Despite all the recent attention to alternative credentials and job pathways—a flurry that includes this newsletter—most of the novel-seeming programs remain modest in scale.
Even the few oft-cited examples that have attracted noteworthy numbers of students, such as Google’s IT certificate or General Assembly and other established boot camp programs, still enroll far fewer students than a large community college.
At least so far, the high-quality innovation around the edges in postsecondary education and job training appears to be like what then-president George H.W. Bush called
a “thousand points of light”—small local programs with a firm grasp of their community.
These initiatives feature real ties between postsecondary providers and businesses, as well as solid labor market intel.
And as Steve Lohr of The New York Times reported
this week, the most successful ones attack the so-called last-mile problem
with nonprofit groups that offer counseling to students and help with housing, childcare, transportation and more.
This approach may continue to be the most promising way for lower-income Americans to stabilize their lives by getting the education and training they need to land a job that pays a living wage, while also offering them career advancement and the possibility of “stacking” college credit–bearing credentials up to a degree. (Although stackability remains more of an aspirational concept than a real option.)
The pandemic also appears to be adding momentum.
The most interesting models
I hear about now enroll more students than the ones I found when writing a report on alternative credentials
for Inside Higher Ed
three years ago. Back then these alternative pathways typically enrolled a few dozen students. Now I’m seeing more like California’s Futuro Health, an unusual allied health collaboration
that is on track to enroll 3,500 students this year. This is particularly true in the high-demand fields of IT and health care.
‘Jobs-First Higher Education’
A partnership that’s set to kick off next month between Propel America and National Louis University, dubbed Accelerate America, features this mix of ingredients and the ambition to enroll thousands of students in multiple locations around the country within three years.
is a national nonprofit
co-founded by two K-12 leaders: John White
, Louisiana’s state superintendent of education, and Paymon Rouhanifard
, the former superintendent of Camden, New Jersey’s K-12 system. It seeks to help young adults move from high school into a career and higher education, with a model that connects schools, job training organizations and colleges, employers and coaches.
The group conducted a small pilot program for medical assistant training last year in Louisiana, Rhode Island and New Jersey. The 33 participating students took asynchronous, boot camp–style courses over six months while getting guidance from a trained coach and a modest stipend to help cover their basic needs. Students also earned on-the-job experience through an internship with a Rhode Island–based health-care system. Almost all of the students in the pilot completed, with 80 percent getting jobs Propel America says pay living wages.
The expanded Accelerate America program will offer three health-care pathways in five states, college credits earned from the nonprofit National Louis University and a goal of helping students stack the credentials they earn into degrees.
Rouhanifard says Propel America recruits students for its boot camps through word of mouth, with referrals from alumni and through the group’s ties to high school principals, teachers and guidance counselors.
But the group first works with employers, he says:
We don’t begin recruiting and serving students until we’ve first established partnerships with employers in order to address and work backward from their hiring needs. Our employers make a commitment to interview our students who complete their credential and any work-based learning experiences for a vacant position.
Participants in Accelerate America will be able to cover their tuition costs with federal Pell Grants. Rouhanifard says Title IV aid is a more dependable subsidy than job training funds from the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, which he says is “incredibly decentralized” and features limited money and political decision making.
“Perhaps most importantly, Title IV ensures that the online credentialing programs our students complete come with college credits that can be articulated into umbrella associate and bachelor’s degrees,” says Rouhanifard. “We call this ‘jobs-first’ higher education, and we hope and believe our partnership with National Louis University will serve as a bellwether for the field.”
While students train to earn industry-recognized credentials, they meet weekly with their Propel America coach, both in cohorts of 12 to 15 students and in one-on-one sessions. The coaching focuses on helping students develop a professional vision with a longer-term career map.
National Louis will accept any credential earned through Accelerate America, counting them as credits toward a degree, says Nivine Megahed
, president of the Chicago-based university, which enrolls 7,000 students and seeks to provide internships to all of its undergraduates. Megahed says the university and Propel America share the view that people must be able to meet their fundamental needs to gain a sense of agency and self-efficacy before they can navigate additional obligations.
Accelerate America allows students to “gain a meaningful credential quickly, launches them into employment, thus economically stabilizing them, and then seamlessly allows them to add and build credentialing without missing a beat—when they are ready,” she says.
Megahed predicts that a few thousand students will complete the program in two to three years, while the university and Propel America add credentials and refine the model. And Rouhanifard says the approach is scalable in part because millions of young Americans need an affordable, rapid path to a living-wage job and career mobility.
“We have intentionally developed our model to be easily deployed to any part of the country, rural or urban, red and blue, through an easy-to-follow curriculum, online credentialing, technology and a road map for implementation,” says Rouhanifard.