Skip to content

5 Ways Policymakers Can Ensure Quality and Equitable Outcomes for Short-term Training

Expanding short-term postsecondary options can contribute to a strong economic recovery, but bold state and federal policy actions are needed to make sure all learners and workers benefit.

July 29, 2021

At A Glance

Expanding short-term postsecondary options can contribute to a strong economic recovery, but bold state and federal policy actions are needed to make sure all learners and workers benefit.

Anne Kress, President of Northern Virginia Community College
Monty Sullivan, President of Louisiana Community and Technical College System
Practices & Centers

As the country takes early steps toward a post-pandemic recovery, significant disruption and uncertainty in the labor market and in schools remain. But one thing is clear: we need to provide more opportunities for learners and workers to quickly acquire skills that are in-demand in today’s economy.

Despite the nascent recovery, millions of people are still out of work or unable to find jobs that pay family-sustaining wages and offer benefits and advancement opportunities. Meanwhile, millions of students are questioning the relevance, time commitment, and costs of traditional courses of study. In today’s economy, jobs that offer good wages and opportunities for career mobility require some postsecondary education and skills training; yet an estimated 54 million working-age adults only have a high school diploma or less.

Federal and state policymakers should look to what is working on the ground when designing policies governing short-term credentialing programs.

Short-term credentialing programs can play an important role in overcoming challenges in the job market and in the talent development pipeline, but concerns remain around the quality and cost of these programs. Federal and state policymakers should look to what is working on the ground when designing policies that govern short-term credentialing programs. As the two of us discussed on a recent episode of JFF’s When Policy Meets Practice podcast, our home states—Louisiana and Virginia—have adopted innovative policy measures that are yielding strong results in short-term training.

We recently teamed up with other community college leaders who serve on JFF’s Policy Leadership Trust to consider what policy approaches are needed at federal and state levels to drive quality, affordability, and reach of short-term postsecondary credential programs. We landed on five big ideas rooted in a commitment to closing racial and socioeconomic gaps in educational attainment and employment, while reforming long-standing structures in higher education. We believe federal and state policy should do the following:

  1. Set quality standards that ensure short-term training leaves learners and workers better off than they were before
  2. Make data on program outcomes transparent and actionable
  3. Eliminate the structural bias favoring college degrees
  4. Build stackable pathways to economic advancement
  5. Guarantee debt-free access to short-term credential

Set Quality Standards to Ensure Programs Leave Learners Better Off Than They Were Before

A key to assessing program quality is identifying criteria that can demonstrate whether people who complete that program go on to be more successful—in life and in their careers. However, metrics traditionally used in higher education—credential attainment—will not suffice. Determining whether people are better off requires a more holistic set of measures, including transferability of skills and credentials to in-demand occupations, improvements in participants’ quality of life, responsiveness to community needs, and impacts on regional economies. We must also remember that success is relative; what amounts to being “better off” varies from person to person, reflecting factors such as cost of living, past wages and work experiences, and sunk costs when participating in education and training.

Make Data on Program Outcomes Transparent and Actionable

Adopting a more holistic and relative way to measure outcomes is just the first step. We also need to make sure data can be collected, analyzed, and made readily available. That will require a fundamental redesign and integration of data systems for education, employment, and individual and community indicators of well-being. In addition, jobseekers and students will need access to career navigation tools and services, both remote and in-person, to put program outcome data in context and help them make informed decisions.

Eliminate the Structural Bias Favoring College Degrees

Federal higher education policy continues to promote longer-term degree programs as the ultimate postsecondary option for students, using seat time requirements—not the actual value of degrees in the labor market—as the critical element of how programs are structured, funded, and counted. Those policies never subjected for-credit coursework and degree programs to the level of scrutiny that is now required of short-term credential programs and other alternative approaches to education and training. Accountability, reporting, and funding structures should recognize short-term credentials. Moreover, credit hour and seat time should no longer serve as proxies for quality, or as criteria for funding. Completion of short-term credential courses should be viewed as a valid qualification for further education, including degree programs.

Build Stackable Pathways to Economic Advancement

We need a new model of postsecondary education that ensures short-term credential programs are more easily and fully integrated into longer-term courses of study. Learners should be able to accumulate (or stack) credentials they earn to advance in their education and their career or apply the skills and credentials when transitioning to new and emerging career opportunities. This would require policies that promote college and career pathways approaches, including credit for prior learning, competency-based assessments, and seamless transitions from non-credit to credit coursework. Crafting such policies would not only require transformation in higher education accreditation and program approval standards but require strong input and partnership from employers to determine the value of credentials in the labor market.

Guarantee debt-free access to short-term credentials

The reality is that few short-term credentials have as big of an impact on earnings potential as four-year degrees. So even though tuition for short-term programs is less expensive than degree programs, workers and learners do have to make hard decisions about whether the eventual payoff will justify the upfront out-of-pocket costs, especially since traditional financial aid plans don’t cover short-term options. We need policies that reform existing financial aid programs and support the creation of new financing approaches to ensure that short-term training programs are affordable, so that everyone has the opportunity to quickly build skills valued in the labor market.

In our new policy brief, Realizing the Potential for Rapid Reskilling, the Policy Leadership Trust dives deeper into these ideas and provides recommendations on specific actions state and federal policymakers can take to expand access to high-quality short-term credentials. If policymakers act on these ideas, our nation will be well-positioned to rebound from the current economic crisis and embark on an equitable long-term recovery.