Redeeming vocational ed

An ally in the White House is unlikely to change the fate of the for-profit education industry in nation’s largest state

This is an extended version of a story that appears in the November 15, 2018, issue.

Private, for-profit universities are losing their stranglehold on vocational training in California, with the lion’s share of those students now turning to the state’s community colleges instead.

For-profit universities have been under fire in recent years for over-charging students and vastly over-promising the value of the degrees being issued. This has been particularly true of career education programs, or CEPs, which were once more commonly known as vocational training or career technical programs.

A 2016 report from the U.S. Department of Education found that graduates who attended career-training programs at public colleges earned $9,000 a year more on average than those who attended similar programs at for-profit universities. The following year, education officials for the Obama administration determined that students attending for-profit universities defaulted on their loans at twice the rate of students attending two-year programs at public colleges.

And while for-profit universities suddenly have a friend in the Trump administration, they’re continuing to lose their clout in the Golden State.

During an October 23 presentation at the Public Policy Institute of California, senior researcher Shannon McConville said that community colleges are now dominating CEPs in California, adding that the enrollments and credentials conferred by for-profit universities for similar programs have dropped 50 percent in the state over the last seven years. McConville noted that this sea change coincided with the state investing more than $1 billion in CEPs at its community colleges since 2014.

McConville was reviewing the findings of a new study she co-authored with PPIC senior researcher Sarah Bohn, which suggests there’s even more opportunity for community colleges to gain ground on for-profit competitors via stackable credential programs. While not widely known, the term “stackable credential program” refers to a pathway that educational institutions lay out for students earning short-term or one-year CEP degrees to enter the workforce before returning to school. Once back in junior college, the student can then leverage their previous course work into better, second and third CEP degrees on the same career trajectory.

The researchers found that, while all short-term or one-year CEP degrees have “low to no value” in making a worker better off, the cumulative effect of getting a second or third CEP degree can provide major benefits to someone’s earning ability. McConville said the stackable programs worked best in four general categories: Information technology; family and consumer sciences, which encompasses everything from preschool workers to the culinary arts and restaurant management; automotive technicians and the construction trades; and public and protective services, which includes working in careers like emergency dispatch and private security.

PPIC is currently working on a new study that will determine how community colleges can better work with employers to expand stackable credential programs. McConville said the stakes, and the possibilities, are high.

“They can really serve as an important tool to provide a route, we hope, to improved employment opportunities and improved economic opportunities and economic mobility,” she said. “And this is particularly true for students who don’t pursue a four-year college degree.”