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Expanded Federal Aid for Short-Term Training Requires Innovation in Quality Assurance

February 25, 2022

The following is a blog from JFF (Jobs for the Future)

Across our nation, communities are facing skills shortages that blunt economic prosperity. After two years of pandemic-driven economic disruption, employers are looking for talent and people are looking for jobs to help them rebound and advance, but there is a mismatch in the skills and credentials that employers need, and the ones jobseekers possess. This challenge is widespread, yet federal policy has done little to address it, offering minimal funding for transformative workforce development efforts.

To help solve this problem, we need to better prepare talent for employers and ensure jobseekers, workers, and learners can more rapidly build the skills necessary for success. This solution is a response not only to industry demand, but also to the fact that individuals are increasingly turning to shorter-term education and training programs, especially those developed to respond to immediate shifts in labor market demands, so they can find work and begin earning family-sustaining wages quickly. Yet federal aid is often unavailable for these programs, forcing individuals who need financial assistance to opt for unnecessarily long courses of study that are eligible for aid, seek private financing options—which can run the gamut from innovative to predatory—or just not pursue postsecondary education at all.

We urge federal, state, and local leaders to continue to find ways to encourage modernization in the structure and delivery of postsecondary education and training programs.

Thankfully, there are efforts underway to expand the scope of federal financial aid programs, including Pell Grants, so that they cover high-quality short-term training opportunities. Action in the U.S. House of Representatives to pass the America COMPETES Act is the most promising recent step toward this goal. With the right guardrails, such an expansion would provide more people with access to the skills and credentials they need to get a foothold in the labor market or progress in their careers; it would also help solve our nation’s persisting worker preparedness challenges.

Transformation While Ensuring Quality

As the America COMPETES Act moves to the U.S. Senate and the Biden administration develops other financial aid and consumer protection regulations, we urge policymakers to adopt quality guardrails and strong performance metrics that help to ensure that short-term education and training programs are of high value. The following ideas build on existing structures used by states and in other federal workforce development programs to determine quality in credentialing programs—an approach that should give policymakers confidence that these programs can be implemented with positive and equitable outcomes.

Program Development

We believe that the systems we now have for determining the quality of traditional higher education programs should be transformed to include shorter-term and workforce-oriented options. This requires more flexibility, so programs can better respond in real time to the rapidly changing labor market. Specifically, federal policymakers should consider reforms to the following:

  • The Triad: Quality in higher education today is governed by the Triad—the U.S. Department of Education, states, and recognized accreditation agencies. We believe this model has worked for traditional higher education programs and should continue to work in ensuring quality for short-term programs that respond to labor market demand—if appropriate changes are made to ensure that they are flexible, align with employer needs, and move away from traditional in-person-only instruction.
  • Accreditation: If legislation is enacted that expands Title IV or Pell Grant eligibility to short-term programs, it will be important for accreditors to find ways to accelerate program approval processes. They must be more agile when it comes to assessing the quality of new programs and accommodating changes that providers must make to existing programs to keep up with employers’ rapidly evolving skill requirements. As part of the approval process, accreditors should consider a provider’s ability to offer the supports learners need to persist in their studies, complete their programs, and achieve positive labor market outcomes.
  • Employer Engagement: Another important metric to consider when assessing the quality of short-term training is whether there is solid evidence that programs lead to employment. Factors to consider include whether the program makes use of quantitative labor market information and engages in robust efforts to communicate and partner with employers.
  • Other Quality Assurance Considerations: To respond to the rapidly changing landscape of educational opportunities, especially outside of traditional institutions of higher education, we will need new frameworks for evaluating quality. Recognizing that, JFF recently acquired Education Quality Outcomes Standards (EQOS), an organization that establishes universal, independent measures of education and training program quality. JFF intends to use the EQOS framework to help students, learning organizations, policymakers, and others better understand quality across a range of providers.

Quality Measures

Building upon performance measures already in use under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), in successful state programs, and included in the America COMPETES Act, there are three critical outcome metrics that should be considered in determining the quality and equity of short-term programs.

  1. Program Completion and Credential Attainment. It is essential that short-term programs lead to recognized postsecondary credentials, including certificates of completion, industry certifications, and professional licenses, as applicable. We also strongly urge federal policymakers to enact measures that encourage programs to offer stackable and portable credentials aligned to career pathways, where applicable, so learners have clear paths to college and career advancement.
  2. Employment. Short-term programs must also lead to employment and career progression. This is a critical measure to ensure that programs are truly aligned with jobs in growing fields that offer opportunities for career advancement and that there is a strong return on investment for program participants.
  3. Earnings. Lastly, short-term programs must also result in relative increases in earnings based on previous wages, where possible. We understand that wages vary based on region and other factors, but the baseline of this measure should be that people are better off than they were before they participated in the program.

As policymakers continue to debate and figure out how to expand federal aid for short-term programs, it will be critical to build on existing structures while also developing new measures and practices to ensure the quality of short-term programs. However, to fulfill that goal and ensure that all program participants can achieve equitable advancement, any new quality mechanism must 1) be agile and establish criteria that allow for the fact that programs need to respond to ongoing changes in this evolving labor market, and 2) focus on participant outcomes that are critical for ensuring that programs provide a strong return on investment for individuals and close equity gaps in employment and wages rather than exacerbate them.

While focused primarily on immediate actions that federal leaders should be considering, JFF and ECMC Group also recognize that longer-term, transformational change is still needed to ensure that workers are able to keep up with the rapidly changing labor market.

We urge federal, state, and local leaders to continue to find ways to encourage modernization in the structure and delivery of postsecondary education and training programs and to promote alignment across system partners to meet the complex needs of individuals, industries, and communities and to ensure an equitable economic recovery.

By David Soo, chief of staff, JFF and Heidi Johnson, chief of staff, ECMC Group

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