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Affordability and Microcredentials

Cutting costs for short-term credentials with course sharing and, perhaps, federal money.

A course-sharing company offers nondegree credentials to colleges through a networked marketplace. Also, underestimating support for Workforce Pell across party lines, new reports on college ROI, and mixed results for a $370M workforce training program in California.

Photo by Jan Zakelj on Pexels

‘Bespoke, e-Commerce-Enabled Storefronts’

Demand for nondegree credentials has risen. But it can be expensive and tricky for colleges to create their own workforce-relevant courses and certifications. Homegrown microcredentials also may be more likely to fall flat with students and employers, particularly in competition with professional certificates from big brands like Salesforce or AWS.

Acadeum, an online course-sharing company, is betting that a networked marketplace will be a better option for its 460 college and university partners, which include a growing number of community colleges. Beginning last month, those colleges can tap into 380+ online certificates, certifications, and skills-training courses.

Much of that library isn’t new for Acadeum, which had offered professional certificates and other microcredentials through its partnerships with Coursera and MedCerts. But the company has added Certiport and Muzzy Lane, with other platforms to follow.

Participating institutions can embed the short-term online credentials into curricula, perhaps as on-ramps to degrees. Or colleges can offer them as stand-alone options, of either the credit-bearing or noncredit variety.

“Skills Marketplace lowers the barrier of entry for institutions to self-select only the certifications that align their program offerings to meet student and workforce demand,” says David Daniels, Acadeum’s president and CEO.

The colleges and training providers decide together where to set prices for the certificates and certifications. Daniels describes it as a true marketplace, where providers can offer credentials at a discount to generate a margin as they price the content to their learners. Some of the credentials have been developed and offered by colleges in Acadeum’s network.

For example, Southeastern University’s SEU Trades is available through the expanded library. That program features credentials in the construction technology, HVAC, event production, project management, plumbing, and electrical fields. 

Other institutions use the platform to offer industry-recognized credentials. One is Hawaii Pacific University, which uses course sharing powered by Acadeum for certificates from Google, Meta, Microsoft, IBM, Salesforce, and more. 

The company’s role is providing the enabling technology, Daniels says, to allow colleges to “quickly stand up bespoke, e-commerce–enabled storefronts.”

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What’s Next for Short-Term Pell?

Congressional bids to open up federal Pell Grants to short-term programs—ones that take eight to 14 weeks to complete—continue to be stalled in a badly fractured Washington. Insiders say the biggest sticking points remain the enduring battle over the eligibility of for-profit colleges and the bipartisan House bill’s controversial plan to help cover costs by cutting off federal loan access at the nation’s wealthiest colleges.

But a recent pulse-taking by an unusual nonprofit group suggests the partisan divide on short-term Pell might not be so wide—among both voters and lawmakers.

CommonSense American brings a bipartisan lens to federal policy. Members of the program, which is housed at the University of Arizona’s National Institute for Civil Discourse, select issues with aisle-spanning potential—elections legislation, infrastructure, medical billing. The staff develops a policy brief on the topic, featuring pros and cons. Members then weigh in, and the group takes the results to Congress.

Across party lines, the group found overwhelming support among its 74K members for more government funding aimed at career-connected learning for Americans without four-year degrees. Likewise, 90% of Democrats and 88% of Republicans back short-term Pell (which has been dubbed Workforce Pell in recent bills).

Yet both sides severely misjudge support across party lines. And that mistaken perception extends to Capitol Hill, say the group’s Keith Allred and Holli Woodings, citing briefings at more than 60 congressional offices.

“Members and staff underestimate how much the other party supports Workforce Pell just like our respondents do,” they say. “It seems clear that Workforce Pell legislation would pass with strong bipartisan support in floor votes in both chambers.”

Guardrails and For-Profits: Republican leaders on the House Education and Workforce Committee included performance metrics and safeguards in the bill they hammered out with their Democratic counterparts. Those checks are stiff enough that community college leaders and others worry they might trip up some high-quality programs.

The House is expected to vote on that legislation next week, reports Politico’s Bianca Quilantan.

Democrats in the House are far more aware of the strong support among their Republican peers for strong safeguards than are key Senate Democrats, Allred says.

Majorities of all subgroups of the CommonSense American survey’s respondents went from backing the exclusion of for-profits to opposing it when high-quality guardrails were included.

The House bill includes a “critical safeguard to prevent opening up Pell to programs that promise the moon, but leave students in poverty-level jobs,” particularly compared to a bipartisan bill in the Senate, write New America’s Rachel Fishman and Amy Laitinen, who have been critical of short-term Pell proposals.

Laitinen says the Pell program is likely to experience a funding shortfall soon. When that has happened before, she notes, the poorest students took the biggest hit. Expanding Pell to shorter-term programs “really puts the stability of the Pell program at risk,” says Laitinen. “We could be looking at then making other cuts to offset it” or even to repeal it.

The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the House proposal would cost $1.7B over nine years, or about $200M annually when the program is up and running.

For now, a short-term Pell bill has little chance of getting past Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont Independent who leads the Senate’s education committee, unless for-profits are prohibited from participating. The only way forward for the House compromise is to somehow bypass Sanders as part of a broader bill package, say a wide range of observers.

Allred, however, remains optimistic about short-term Pell happening this year.

The Kicker: “We’re also impressed by how committed a diverse set of interest groups are to not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good,” say Allred and Woodings. “It feels like there’s a rising consensus that some version of Workforce Pell exists that almost everyone can agree is better than the status quo.”

The Complex Story on College ROI

Research seeking to answer the question of whether college “pays off” continues to pile up. And the answers remain nuanced, even as the debate can be maddeningly simplistic.

Three new reports add to that picture. They look at:

  • Underemployment among bachelor’s degree holders, which is large and “sticky.”

  • The 1K colleges that provide little financial boost.

  • Shortcomings of both the “college for all” and the “don’t bother” narratives.

Click over to Work Shift to read about these reports. —By Elyse Ashburn

Open Tabs

The U.S. Department of Labor is offering an additional $200M in grants to expand and diversify registered apprenticeships. The money will come through two existing grant programs, and the department will prioritize projects that focus on jobs and industries—like tech, advanced manufacturing, and clean energy—that are seeing federal investment through the Infrastructure Law, the CHIPS and Science Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act.

Meaningful Credentials
The new workforce strategy for Arkansas seeks to be resident-centric, employer-led, demand-informed, and data-driven. A report describing the just-released strategy says the state’s education department should identify which skills are most important to employers and “reward meaningful credentials” that align with the needs of jobseekers, educators, and employers. It also calls for the effective marketing of nontraditional postsecondary paths.

Outcomes-Based Loans
Social Finance described the expansion of its career impact bond model, earlier versions of which used income-share agreements. The early approach was studied by MDRC, with mixed findings. The nonprofit now features place-based recyclable loan funds, provides variable and performance-based advance rates to training providers, and has made design adjustments to improve learner compliance with repayment, which remains a challenge.

Skills-Based Hiring
Employers say time and demographics aren’t on their side as they grapple with labor shortages, reports The Wall Street Journal’s Lauren Weber. Baby boomers are aging out of the workforce, U.S. birth rates are low, immigration policy isn’t helping, and college enrollment has declined. The article cites Medtronic’s move toward skills-based hiring, including the company’s work to re-credential job roles without a drop-off in talent quality.

Community Colleges
The Alamo Colleges District seeks to roughly double its workforce training enrollment, to 15K students, by 2028, Scott Huddleston reports for the San Antonio Express-News. The district has had the highest enrollment spike (17% since 2018) among the 10 largest two-year college districts in Texas. As Alamo tries to expand its workforce centers and childcare options, it also is offering more direct networking with employers, plus contacts for industry sectors.

Credential Wallets
The University of Texas System has partnered with Territorium, an ed-tech company, to offer a credential wallet to students. As part of a broader microcredential project, the system seeks to create a mobile app and single repository for verified badges and credentials. Territorium also recently teamed up with the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities to provide students with a skills-first digital wallet and job-matching tools.

Online and Dually Enrolled
Savvas, a K-12 ed-tech company, has acquired Outlier, an online course provider. Outlier features cinematic production and big-name instructors. It has offered a path to college credit through partnerships with traditional universities, as well as associate degrees and professional certificates from Big Tech companies. Savvas said the course offerings will be focused on dual enrollment and dual credit for K-12 students.

Thanks for reading. Let me know what I missed? —PF