Nondegree Credential Programs in Higher Ed: A Conversation with Paul Fain and Betsy Tessler

Paul Fain and Betsy Tessler

Nondegree credentials are typically certificates or licenses earned in a short period of time that confer some kind of professional or industry-recognized skill. They’re not new to the world of higher education, but they have received a lot of attention in the last few years as a “faster ” way to connect students to employment in comparison to earning a traditional college degree.

Leigh Parise sits down with Paul Fain, a higher education journalist who writes an education and workforce newsletter called “The Job,” and Betsy Tessler, a senior research associate at MDRC, to answer some of the big questions surrounding nondegree credentials.

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Interest in nondegree credentials continues to grow among students, institutions and employers. Non-degree credentials are typically opportunities for people to earn work-relevant education in a short period of time and are less costly than getting a traditional college degree. . But what do we know about the quality and effectiveness of these programs and the value they offer to the students and employers? 

Today I talk with Paul Fain, a long-time higher education journalist focusing on the connections between education and the American workforce and Betsy Tessler, a Senior Associate at MDRC with over 20 years of research experience in workforce development.

Leigh Parise: I want to start just by welcoming the two of you. It’s really exciting to get to have this conversation today. Thanks so much for joining me.

Paul Fain: Thanks for having me.

Betsy Tessler: Pleasure.

Leigh Parise: Paul, I’m going to ask you to do a quick introduction. Tell us a little bit about who you are.

Paul Fain: Sure. I’m Paul Fain. I’m a longtime higher ed journalist. In the last couple years, I’ve pivoted to covering the connections between education and the workforce, kind of writ large: K-12 all the way up through postsecondary [and] even corporate job training, trying to look at it outside of all the various silos. I’ve been doing that primarily through a newsletter, called The Job, the last two and a half years.

Leigh Parise: Great. Thank you. Betsy, tell us a little bit about yourself.

Betsy Tessler: Sure. I am a senior research associate at MDRC, in the Economic Mobility, Housing, and Communities policy area. I’ve been at MDRC for 22 years [and] done a lot of work and studies focused on workforce training, both the nonprofit community–based type of training providers—in that realm—as well as more recently focusing more on noncredit training, workforce training programs in community colleges.

Leigh Parise: Great, thank you. I love that the two of you are here, because I think you both know a lot about a variety of education workforce topics. Today we’re going to focus mostly on nondegree credentials. We’re going to start with a really basic first question: What are nondegree credential programs? Paul, do you want to kick us off?

Paul Fain: Sure. The most common one, historically, is the certificate: the one-year certificate or the smaller bite-size credit-bearing certificate or noncredit. There are professional certifications that are similar but not the same, often created by licensing bodies that are tied to an assessment. In the last few years, there are quite a few professional certificates, some people call them, from big corporations themselves—I’m thinking primarily of the big tech certificates from Google and IBM and AWS that are focused…well, they’re all different too, and you can’t generalize about any of these. There’s so much [that’s] complex in each one. Even that last category, which is much smaller than the other ones in terms of the numbers, the difference between an AWS and a Google cert is quite substantial. But I’ll leave it there.

Leigh Parise: Great. Thanks. Betsy, do you want to add anything?

Betsy Tessler: I think the only thing I would add is that there are some differences—I know we’ll get into this—between noncredit, nondegree credentials and credit-bearing. Noncredit programs could be as short as six weeks and you can end with an industry-recognized credential. And then there are other occupationally focused certificates that might build on those and that are credit-bearing. I think we’re going to get into that a little bit.

Leigh Parise: We will. First, I want to ask, why are we talking about these? Why are people interested in them and why does it feel like something that we’re hearing more about lately?

Paul Fain: Yeah. These aren’t new, nothing is really totally new in higher ed unless we start talking about AI, which is becoming a bigger part of every day for all of us. We are living through the tail end of an enormous enrollment crisis that I think was bizarrely understated by many people who watched the industry—I think not anymore—that has hit community colleges in particular the last few years (but it started 12 years ago). Part of the reason is we have this just terrible income and wealth inequality in this country. It’s increasingly hard for people to enroll in a full-time four-year [or] two-year program, and particularly when they’re not sure whether or not it’s a good bet.

And let’s be honest, it’s hard to know what’s a good bet. We’re not talking about residential selective universities; I don’t cover them. They’re doing great, and the people who go there are doing great. But [in] all the rest of higher ed, which is most of it, these are very tough decisions. I think there has been a lot of evidence, through surveys, that people are increasingly interested in shorter-term credentials to get a quick start. Now, just to flag, there’s a real challenge there, particularly if it’s noncredit. But can you work toward a degree, which we all know is the best bet for the middle class? Are these terminal short-term credentials? If so, what value do they have in the marketplace? They vary quite a bit. But I think, generally, that concept of trying to get a quick start is driving a lot of the recent conversation about interest in this.

Leigh Parise: Great. I think that makes a lot of sense. One of the questions I know that we’ve talked a lot about here at MDRC is, what happens after that quick start? Do people actually come back? Do they really stack credentials? Does it really lead you into a two- or a four-year degree program? That’s something that I know a lot of researchers are interested in now and the field is trying to understand.

So, Paul, one of the things that you just mentioned was credit and noncredit. Let’s talk a little bit about the difference between credit-bearing and noncredit programs, and maybe also a bit about how or whether the populations might differ in those two programs. Betsy, do you want to start with that one?

Betsy Tessler: Sure. There are differences in many ways, both in terms of where credit versus noncredit training programs are situated in the structure of the community college and populations who participate in those. Credit-bearing programs are offered on the academic side of the colleges, typically offered on an academic schedule. They may involve multiple classes. They’re scheduled in an open enrollment type of fashion, so students don’t necessarily move through them in a cohort, whereas noncredit programs tend to be offered on what’s usually called the “workforce” and “continuing education” side of community colleges. They’re accelerated and they cover all the content that’s needed to sit for the credentialing exam in whatever industry the course is offered in.

The noncredit courses are more likely to be offered during evenings or weekends to accommodate working students. Those students tend to move through them in a cohort. I think it’s important, also, to note—and I remember what I was going to say before—colleges have more flexibility to offer noncredit courses in response to industry or employer needs. So going back to what we were saying before, I think that’s another thing that’s driving this increase in interest in short-term, nondegree credential programs: Employers have a need to fill these positions quickly. And that’s easier done on the noncredit side, but there [aren’t] the same kind of accreditation requirements, et cetera. So there’s a lot more flexibility to respond quickly to employer need.

Just in terms of who participates in these programs, I think, generally speaking, noncredit programs tend to serve students or learners who are older. They’re making career changes. They tend to serve people who are more underrepresented in the community college general population. For example, in a study that we’re doing right now in Virginia—which we’ll get into a little bit more later—of noncredit training programs there, the noncredit side of Virginia community colleges enroll a substantially higher share of male students, Black students, older students, compared to the short-duration credit-bearing certificate programs.

Leigh Parise: Great. Paul, is there anything you want to add to that?

Paul Fain: Just to say that I’m glad Betsy brought up the employer demand as part of the interest in short-term credentials. I think there is tremendous turnover right now in many frontline workers’ positions. Some big companies, the median worker is leaving their job in 30 days. You have conversion of job roles. Accenture just laid off 19,000 people and then doubled its AI-related employees to 80,000. You’re going to see a lot more of that cyber [work], just tremendous demand here in the greater Washington area and many other places. And frankly, employers don’t have the time to wait for higher ed to create programs where graduates might be ready in six years.

I do think that’s part of this, but it’s very hard for them to determine which short-term programs are quality, which ones they should hire from. Changing their HR systems—that’s a whole different topic. They’re not ready, frankly, for short-term credentials in many cases. I will just say on the credit/noncredit piece, higher ed is terrible at accepting certificate credit for people who transfer, whether they have credit or it’s noncredit. Higher ed’s business model is not built to accept transfer credit.

I’ve been writing about this for 20 years. There’s been no movement at all, that I’m aware of, to improve the uptake of students who even try to transfer in with a two-year degree. At this point I frankly think it’s a lost cause. I don’t know how that’s going to improve. I think sometimes we focus more on the credit/noncredit piece than what you are going to get for a credit piece, even if you could stack it up.

Leigh Parise: Well, I was going to say it feels like it’d be a missed opportunity to not ask how you think it can improve, but if you think it’s a lost cause, maybe I shouldn’t even ask.

Paul Fain: It’s not that. It’s more just I’m getting tired of having the same conversation forever. If people don’t understand or can’t accept that higher ed’s business model will fight this—it has, and successfully—I don’t really know…I guess I have a little fatigue of reading pieces about “We have to do more on transfer.” That’s not to say that that’s not right and important, but I’m not seeing the levers for change. Frankly, I think students, policymakers, and employers have had it with that intransigence of the industry.

Leigh Parise: That actually makes me think about one of the things I’m not sure we touched on or we got to in detail, and that first question was just about where these nondegree programs are. So you’re talking, now, about some challenges in the higher ed space. Betsy, I know you talked a little bit about some of the things happening within community colleges. But maybe one of you could just speak to—for people listening who aren’t super familiar—where are these nondegree programs when we’re talking about them? Where should we be picturing students actually doing this coursework?

Paul Fain: Well, I’ll start, because I know far less than Betsy does about this. She mentioned the continuing ed, adult education–focused pieces of four-year institutions. I think community colleges…to me, those are the two places where you’re going to have the noncredit programs that probably are worth watching the most, where most of the work is being done. That said, there [are] quite a few new providers out there. These are small, for sure, relative to community colleges where the students really are. But thinking about Per Scholas or Merit America, some of those non-college training programs: Interestingly, you’re starting to see credit pathways for some of them.

In one of the more interesting ones I just wrote about, an online course platform called Outlier works with Golden Gate University, a four-year private institution. Using their accreditation can issue credits for job training programs now, like Per Scholas or Google Certificates. We’re not seeing thousands and thousands of students doing that, but I think there are moves by those outside of the traditional higher ed industry to try to attach credit to some training and credentials.

Betsy Tessler: And I would just add to that, in addition to those nonprofit, more community-based providers, like Per Scholas, there are for-profit providers out there too, getting into the space, especially within certain industries. Sometimes there are collaborations between some of these independent providers and community colleges. For example, in many colleges that offer commercial driver’s license training, they’re contracting with a private provider to offer that. So there is really a wide range of providers out there. But I think that the place where there’s the most potential to really scale up and reach the largest number of people is in the community colleges.

Leigh Parise: Okay, great. Thank you. All right. So, Paul, one of the things that you flagged earlier was about how people make decisions, and people are really struggling or weighing this, “How do I know that what I’m making an investment in is actually going to be a good bet or a worthwhile investment?” What do we actually know about the effectiveness of nondegree programs? What kinds of evidence is out there?

Paul Fain: Well, there [are] a lot of strong opinions, far more than there are hard data. I think if we’re talking about one-year credit-bearing certificates, there is information to make some judgments there. But my understanding is that when it comes to noncredit or noncollege credentials, there’s almost nothing. There’s some interesting research on short-term credential programs that oddly, again, given the heat of the opinions around this, doesn’t seem to make it into the discourse as much as you’d like. But RAND has done some interesting studies on short-term credentials in Ohio.

What I’ve seen—and again, you can’t generalize about any of this—but it’s not a clear case. It’s not that these things are worthless for sure. It’s not that they’re great and better than the degree either. It all depends on the region, the provider, the student, the industry they’re going into. I think it’s safe to say that there’s very little information about the value of many of the nondegree and noncredit credentials.

Betsy Tessler: Yes. That is my impression as well. I think, especially on the noncredit side, it’s largely because colleges don’t collect data on students in their noncredit programs. They’re often not required to. And so without data on the students and on their labor market outcomes—which is really hard to get for noncredit completers—we won’t really be able to determine how effective these programs are.

Paul Fain: Can I just throw in an example of how challenging this can get? Intel, you may have heard, is hiring a lot of people to work in the semiconductor fabs they’re building with massive infusion. The new industrial policy of America. It’s one of the biggest developments in manufacturing in our country in a generation. They are really committed to hiring community college students for those jobs; 70 percent of them in Ohio and in Arizona, they say, will be community college, meaning two-year degree or certificate. That’s amazing and very exciting, but what sorts of training and credentials will flow into those jobs? This program’s gotten some attention because it’s so fascinating. Maricopa in Arizona—Maricopa Community College district—they’ve created a 10-day program [where] Intel has contributed the curriculum, where the students literally are done in 10 days. It’s subsidized at a very low cost to students.

I don’t think it comes with the credential. I don’t think there’s an assessment. It’s not a noncredit program in the sense of any way that we think about this. But a community college leader told me recently, the way to look at that is [as] an extended job interview. Do you want to wear the bunny suit all day long? Do you want to work four days a week and three days a week as your job for 12-hour shifts? Giving people a chance to understand whether or not this is even a path they want to pursue, that sounds great to me. Is that going to look good on ROI metrics? I don’t know.

I mean, how are you even going to track that? Should you track that? Is that a program that we should hold Maricopa accountable for? To me it sounds like almost an unqualified good thing. This is an opportunity on ramp to a massive growth industry. But it just shows—it’s an extreme example—but some of the things that are popping up don’t fit into our frames or our data collection regimes to even understand.

Leigh Parise: That’s really interesting. I’m so glad you gave such a concrete example. I think it really points to how challenging it is if you are a student who is thinking, How do I make all these different decisions? One, we don’t even really know how to talk about these things in a way that is similar across different regions, across different systems. We also don’t know what the evidence is, about what actually is going to make a bigger difference in the long run. And so it’s just a really challenging environment right now for students who are having to make decisions about what is actually going to make the most sense for [their] future.

I really appreciate examples like that, that are even more outside of the realm of the things that typically might come up when you’re thinking about different types of pathways or different options for students. Thank you for that. All right. We’ve talked about different kinds of programs: the Maricopa example as the most recent one that you just mentioned. That’s a little bit different than anything else we might have been thinking about. I’d love to talk a little bit about some of the challenges to designing and implementing effective nondegree credential programs. I also recognize I just said “effective programs," when we actually, two minutes ago, just said, “We don’t really know it’s effective,” but I think you get what I’m getting at.

Betsy Tessler: I would start by saying “funding,” especially on the noncredit side of community colleges. Generally speaking, workforce divisions of community colleges—again, I’m talking about noncredit, so not the credit-bearing certificate programs—they need to be self-sustaining. Their programs have to pay for themselves. There are often resources available—state and federal grants, for example—to cover tuition assistance to support adult learners who might otherwise not be able to enroll in that kind of a workforce training class. But that financial support doesn’t cover the cost of standing up these programs and keeping them going and keeping the materials available.

The consumable materials in a welding class, for example: They’re big expenses. And colleges need to find ways to cover those costs to get these programs up and keep them running. So, I mean, tuition assistance that’s out there and available in a lot of states, it seems like now increasingly there’s state funding available to help students cover tuition for these types of programs. But the administrative costs of standing up these programs is something that colleges are always struggling to figure out how to fund.

Paul Fain: Yeah, I could just piggyback there. Great points. We often hear about how community colleges or four-year institutions are too slow [and] not willing to try to create programs to meet employer demands. That side of the complaint tree seems to be well established. The other side of it is that community colleges will tell you they’ve been burned. They’ve created a short-term program with an employer who is part of an advisory council that was kind of there, kind of not. Some people left, then they never hired anyone. I heard this incredible story from a community college workforce person. I won’t name the institution or the company. But a large tech company representative came to speak to some students and said, “Hey, we’ve dropped degree requirements. You don’t even need to get a degree if you want to come work for us.” And the community college official looked it up: Never had that company hired a single person from this very large community college.

So the disconnect is deep here. Anne Kress, the amazing president of Northern Virginia Community College—which probably does all of this as well as anyone, if not better—says, “You get what you incentivize.” This is a real moment for states to put up or shut up, a little bit. Do you want higher ed to be more responsive to employer needs? Well, this isn’t cheap to do well. And that goes for employers too. I think you talked, Betsy, about the program costs. Unfortunately, high-demand fields tend to be some of the most expensive fields to offer programs in. You can’t hire instructors because they’re high-demand fields, and the equipment is expensive, and it changes fast, et cetera. So employers, [there’s a] huge role to play there, and states too.

As, I think, more and more data comes online, the education is just part of the process here if you want to improve students’ economic and social mobility. It’s the wraparound supports, which aren’t cheap. It’s the social capital support. It’s the coaching once they get the job. So a lot of expense. But if you think about the way we’ve always done this stuff, it’s a voucher system. “Students: You figure it out, here’s a million credentials, good luck.” I think what you’re seeing in Virginia and many other states, and increasingly from the federal government—“Let’s pick the industries where we’re pretty sure there’s a good wage on the other end, where there’s growth, and we will subsidize those programs”— this kind of sectoral funding approach that is a big shift. And I think that we see new money and incentives that can actually help colleges do what they need to do to make these programs work.

Betsy Tessler: Yeah. Paul, you touched on the other piece I was going to mention too, which is the supports to help students persist [in] and complete these programs and get the credential and get a job. And that is the piece that, at least in my experience, colleges are always scrambling, going from one grant to another to try to fund the wraparound supports, the assistance with transportation in a rural area—somebody’s car breaks down and they can’t get to class anymore, do they have some pool of funding that can provide 100 bucks to repair the car? Are there good mental health supports? Housing is a huge issue everywhere, and [it] sounds like colleges really have a hard time helping students meet housing needs. I was visiting a college in West Virginia earlier this year where students in some of these programs were living in their cars. Colleges just don’t have the resources, often, to support students in that way.

Or, like I said, they’re kind of scrambling, going from one grant to another to try to fund a position, a one-on-one support advisor, sometimes to refer students to supports and sometimes just to be the cheerleader that they need to be able to get through some of these programs. Especially, again, on the noncredit side, many of the participants in these programs, they haven’t been to school since they were in high school. They didn’t have a good experience in high school. They have bad associations with education in general and never imagined themselves being a college student. I think there’s a great need to continue to recruit, and bring into these programs, folks who bring that kind of experience and profile. But to have the supports to make sure that they can succeed without having to run from one grant to the other, that’s a big challenge.

Leigh Parise: Thank you.

We’ve talked so far about a number of different questions or challenges that are coming up, things like what kind of information students have to make decisions. [There are] so many things out there. How are policies and funding set up in a way that’s actually incentivizing the system to create and support programs that are more likely to lead to things that are better for students? What do you think are, let’s say, the two most important questions or challenges that we really need to be tackling in order to make some more advances in the field? Paul, do you want to kick us off?

Paul Fain: Sure. I think MDRC has [made] an amazing contribution to the field in showing the effectiveness of CUNY ASAP and interventions that help students in all the ways that we know. Raj Chetty has shown us the social capital piece is as important as anything. But how do you make those programs accessible for more students? I mean, unfortunately, we’re talking about very small numbers. Even in Ohio, where it was replicated, it’s expensive. I don’t have any answers there, but I think a realization that to really make a dent in the career connection, as well as the traditional student success metrics, you’re going to have to have a lot of supports. How to do that at scale, to me, seems like the biggest thing of all. And then, I think, making the right bets about subsidies and support and incentives in an incredibly complex labor market where things are moving fast. We need better information.

There’s a lot of exciting work happening in the states, Alabama being at the top of the class in merging workforce and education data so we even know where people are and where the needs are. That’s huge. As a side note of that, what do we do with these helping professions—if you want to call them that—that just don’t pay enough? Higher ed’s a very flawed industry in many ways, but that’s not really on higher ed. What are we going to do about medical assistance, home health aids, early childcare workers? The credential and the educational quality of those programs, to me, is irrelevant if they pay poverty wages, and I haven’t heard any good solutions there.

Betsy Tessler: I can piggyback on that. I might argue that it goes even beyond those low-paying medical fields, which is another challenge that we run up against. Often, in our studies of these short-term training programs, is that someone might complete, so there’s a goal of training people with a low level of skill to begin with in a very short time for a middle- to high-skill, high-paying job in a high-demand field. Not surprisingly, that’s really, really hard to do. What we find is two different things happen. Either a program does have the ability to give people a pretty big jump after a short-term training program, but they’re doing a lot of screening. A person has to come in with a minimum level of skill to be able to make a big jump like that.

For the remainder of the programs, [which] are more open, it’s just very hard to train someone for a middle- to high-skill job in a short period of time. So people are completing these programs; they’re earning an industry credential, but they’re still starting at a low wage. Even in some of the high-tech…you’d think over time it’ll be a higher-paying job if they persist in that industry. We’ve heard in recent site visits and focus groups with students and some of these types of programs [that] they’re getting ready to complete their program, or they’ve just completed. But the entry level jobs they’re finding, in the occupation they trained for, are paying lower than the retail job that they left to do this program. So they’re going to go back to the retail job because they need that money now.

If they stay, if they take a little bit of a pay cut and go into the skilled field that they trained for and stick with it, their earnings potential over time will be much greater. But how do you jump them over? How do you help completers of these programs make ends meet while they have to persist for a while until they can advance? One thing we hear all the time from colleges is they wish they could do more work with students and completers post-completion. They wish they had the funding and the ability to stay connected to them, to coach them so that they persist in the field that they trained for and take a long view. But it’s really challenging when people have needs right now. And those entry level jobs, even in these skilled fields, just don’t pay enough.

Leigh Parise: Yeah, thank you both. I feel like, Betsy, what you just said connects back a lot to Paul’s note about figuring out how to make the right bets about the subsidies, the supports, and the incentives that you’re offering to help support exactly that: helping students actually get into the longer-term, better careers that are going to—down the road—really lead to higher wages.

Paul Fain: Can I just jump on that because I think it’s such a great point? When you think about economic mobility in its broadest terms, for someone to be mobile, it means somebody has to give something up. I used to look at a lot of the tough stories around student success when I was at Inside Higher Ed. What is higher ed’s responsibility here and what are broader societal problems? I think the pandemic turbocharged this, but we’re starting to see this is so many things that…I don’t want to let higher ed off the hook, but if you’re just focused there, you’re not getting the job done.

One of the most depressing findings I’ve seen recently…so City University of New York, CUNY, is among the best for boosting the economic mobility of its students, if not the best. They’re doing so many things right. They have bulked up their computer and software engineering and overall STEM offerings to try to help students plug into where these great jobs are. Unfortunately, the median software engineering student graduate of a four-year program at CUNY is making 45K, usually not in the field. Half of them are not even in the field. So what’s going on there? Well, if you want to work in tech in New York City, in Manhattan, you probably have to go to an elite institution. Things haven’t changed. Those are the people who get jobs there. CUNY can do everything right and still you’re going to struggle. So you need supports on the backend. You need to change employer behavior in a very deep way.

Let’s be honest, a lot of employers, the C-suite may put out pronouncements about dropping degree requirements and opening up the doors in D&I, and then the business units are like, “No, we’re just going to keep hiring the people we’re going to keep hiring.” This is a society-wide problem. But to try to put a positive spin on that—because I think you can’t just throw up your hands; it’s like climate change, we can’t just give up here, the problem is getting worse—I think there are some intermediaries that show promise in helping students throughout the process. And you see colleges increasingly working with some of them. Braven is a really interesting one. Co-op is one. I encourage folks to take a look at a “pay it forward” social capital networking tool to help people once they get in those jobs. But we have a lot of work to do, to say the least.

Leigh Parise: I always appreciate a “Hey, let me give you a little bit of the optimism here and find some of the kernels of good things.” Even though there [are] always challenges, there are bright spots too. One of the things that you mentioned is this challenge related to skills-based hiring. I know it’s something, Paul, you’ve written and talked a lot about. And it feels like there’s a lot more attention to it lately. I would love for you to say a little bit about your take on that and where you think that’s headed.

Paul Fain: On skills-based hiring, I think this is one of the most quick and important changes in society that I’ve seen in my career, in terms, at least, of the interest in skills-based hiring from companies and policymakers and across partisan lines, and what it says about how we view credentials and society. So that’s number one. You cannot underestimate, I think, how important this is. Is it happening? No, not really great numbers yet, because of the things I just talked about. That said, at least 10 states—13, depending on how you count it, I think it’s really 11—have made substantial changes in how they use degree requirements for state government jobs.

And this could be the tail that shakes the whatever. The state government is a big employer. There are a lot of ways that this could show that this is possible. And again, this is bipartisan. I mean, this is blue states and red states. Companies, of course, are doing this too. You hear a lot of, “Well, Google dropped degree requirements and Google’s not hiring any people that...” Of course, Google can hire anyone in the world; it’s the best brand in the world. So the symbolism of what they’re doing is important. They’re not going to drive that change. You have to look a little deeper.

I wrote today about Medtronic, the biggest medical device supplier in the world. They’ve dropped—or replaced, I should say—a degree requirement for 50 percent of their IT roles. They’re serious about this. They’re working hard to do that. It’s extremely difficult. It’s a massive change for how employers work. But I think it would be foolish of traditional higher ed and policymakers to say this is a fad that’s going to go away. There is something going on here. It’s the demand for a labor force that’s more diverse, that can be quickly trained. And I think it’s questions about the equity concerns of four-year degrees being the signal of quality.

Betsy Tessler: I have a question for you, Paul, if that’s okay. Do you think this trend is tied to the really tight labor market, and once the labor market loosens up there it’ll go back to the way it was before? I feel like in tight labor markets, employers are often willing to reach more deeply into their applicant pool to hire maybe nontraditional employees or people with nontraditional backgrounds. But I just wonder if this trend is going to persist once the labor market loosens up a little.

Paul Fain: It’s a great question, and obviously I don’t have the answer, so I’m speculating. I think there are many smart people who are engaged in this work who say it’s not going to go back to the way it was before, even in a looser job market. Yes, bottom line concerns are the most important thing to watch here. Companies have a profit motive. I think many of them are really sincere of about their diversity, equity, inclusion work that accelerated in 2020, but it’s not going to happen at scale if it’s not good for the bottom line. That said, I think that there are very serious concerns about, even in a looser job market, rapidly changing workforces.

I mean, we are talking a scale that is unimaginable, that is about to come—and it’s coming for all of us, by the way. It’s going to start with white collar jobs in terms of the tasks [that] are changing. I’m pretty bullish on this. I’m not a “the robots are going to kill us all” person. I am a “this is going to change what people do in their jobs and they’re going to have to get training or retooling to do jobs.” And I think a four-year degree program is probably not the answer for a lot of that work.

Leigh Parise: Yeah, thank you. I’m interested to see the podcast with AI, Betsy, Paul and Leigh, and how much better it does than how we’re doing. But I think you’re right. I think there are lots of changes that are coming down the pike. It’s really helpful for you, I think, to talk about some of that context and how some of the government agencies are thinking about it—what types of intermediaries and different organizations are stepping in to think about what changes they can make. Betsy, I wonder if you can say a little bit…I know you’re doing work now where you’re actually going out and you’re talking directly to students about their perspectives and learning from them about some of the ways that they make decisions, which is what we talked about earlier in the podcast about how challenging that can be for students. This conversation doesn’t make me think it’s going to get any easier tomorrow and next month and next year. Can you tell us a little bit about that work that you’re doing?

Betsy Tessler: Sure. I’ve made a little bit of reference earlier to this particular study. It’s called the Noncredit CTE Study at the Virginia Community College System. We’re looking at what they call their FastForward program, which is state’s  Workforce Credentials Grant funded programs for industry credential training programs in high-skill industries. This is the study MDRC is doing with a couple of partners. The Department of Education at the University of California at Irvine is one of our partners, [and] University of Virginia and the Virginia Community College System itself, funded by Institute of Education Sciences.

What we are doing is looking to understand how this FastForward program is designed and delivered across Virginia’s 23 community college systems. So, just a little background on that: The Workforce Credentials Grant—again, for high-demand fields that lead to an industry-recognized credential—it offers an incentive or pay-for-performance model to incentivize students to go into these fields and complete and get their credential. And it incentivizes the colleges to make sure that students complete and get their credential. It’s a third-third-third funding model where the student is responsible for paying a third of tuition. If they complete their class, the second “third” is covered. And if they get the credential at the end, then the college is reimbursed by the state for the third “third.”

So we are looking to understand the variation in how these programs are delivered across the colleges and what are the academic and labor market outcomes of these completers. We’re very excited about this. Because of the Workforce Credentials Grant, we have identifiers for students and can track their labor market outcomes, as well as their academic outcomes. And these are noncredit programs. It’s really unusual to have access to those kind of data. So [we] really want to see, how do variations in how these programs are delivered…what are associations with different student outcomes? So not an experimental study, very exploratory at this point.

One exciting piece, as you mentioned, Lee, is the focus groups that we’re doing with students. We have an opportunity to talk to students about what their intentions were when they started these programs. What do they think they’re going to do when they complete? Right now, we’re talking to students who are currently in training. In another round of visits, we are hoping to talk to students—if we can—about six months or so after they complete to see where they are. Have their plans changed? Are they working in the field that they trained for? Are they thinking about continuing and stacking additional credentials or transferring into a credit-bearing program?

So we’re very excited. We’ve just completed four site visits to four colleges. We’ll be doing three more visits to colleges. The study itself will also include a survey of all 23 colleges. Our partners are conducting analyses of all of the quantitative data that we have access to: administrative data, demographic and transcript information, enrollment, transcripts, degree attainment, and credential attainment, et cetera.

Leigh Parise: Great. That’ll be exciting. Clearly we need more information in this area. I think it’s really important that we’re continuing to learn and look for opportunities where there are connections that we can really make to the labor market and be able to track people, so that we can develop and learn new information that can feed into both students, as they’re making decisions, but also to practitioners and policymakers, as they’re thinking about funding and different ways to structure programs—and how to share the information about them with students. Thanks for sharing a little bit about that. All right. I think we are nearing the end of our time together. So I’m just going to ask the two of you if there are any big picture thoughts—or little picture thoughts—that you’d like to leave us with as we wrap up.

Paul Fain: Just briefly to say—you’ll have to trust I’m not just trying to flatter the podcast host here—but that research will be very much in my newsletter the day that it’s available. Because I think, as you say, there is a tremendous need for more information about these programs. As far as we know, Fastforward is one of the most nuanced, advanced, and serious programs out there. Getting an understanding of how it’s working from a qualitative and quantitative standpoint is going to be a big contribution to the field. I think people approach some of these questions in the dumb binary of, “I’m either for it or against it.” I would say to think about short-term nondegree credentials in the context of, “They’re happening, whether you like it or not.”

A HCM strategist just did a landscape scan. It’s fascinating; 29 states have invested targeted funding for short-term credentials, nondegree credentials, to the tune of $4 billion recently. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. And again, this is not our usual partisan frames here. I interviewed the governor of Missouri, Republican Governor Mike Parson. He sounded progressive in the way he talked about short-term workforce training. It’s a blurry, complicated space, but I think doing it well is more important than fighting over good or bad.

Leigh Parise: It’s exciting that it’s an area—as we’ve seen similarly in career and technical education—where there is bipartisan support for figuring out how to do it well and how to get people access to quality training, which is something that we can’t take for granted, I think. Betsy, any final thoughts?

Betsy Tessler: I don’t really have much to add, except that I’m really excited to be contributing evidence to this field. We’ll be looking forward to sharing what we learned with you, Paul, and others.

Leigh Parise: Great.

Paul Fain: Appreciate that.

Leigh Parise: So, Paul, Betsy, thank you so much for joining me today. This has been a really great discussion, and I’m excited to get to continue discussions like this.

Betsy Tessler: Thank you. Likewise.

Paul Fain: Thank you. Great questions. I hope we can keep in touch.

Leigh Parise: Seems like non-degree credentials are a promising approach and it will be interesting to see how these studies advance our understanding.  

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About Evidence First

Policymakers talk about solutions, but which ones really work? MDRC’s Evidence First podcast features experts—program administrators, policymakers, and researchers—talking about the best evidence available on education and social programs that serve people with low incomes.

About Leigh Parise

Leigh PariseEvidence First host Leigh Parise plays a lead role in MDRC’s education-focused program-development efforts and conducts mixed-methods education research. More