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An illustration of a person inserting a gold coin into a black box labeled "ROI," with multiple coins coming out of the box's other side.

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What it means to go to college is changing. The pandemic dealt a once-in-a-lifetime shock to the system and, even as it ebbs, students haven’t returned to degree programs in the same numbers as before. They won’t anytime soon, according to mounting evidence.

Yet working Americans without college degrees increasingly are seeking out short-term higher education options. National surveys have shown that throughout the pandemic, Americans preferred nondegree programs and short-term skills training to meet their educational and professional needs. These credentials are designed to lead to in-demand jobs in fields like information technology, advanced manufacturing and health care, and to do it quickly—in six, eight or 10 weeks, not years. Popular options include online certificates, apprenticeships and industry credentials.

Demand for Short-Term Degrees

Would-be students say they want these options and are showing up on college campuses to pursue them. In Indiana, for example, the community college system has seen substantial growth in the number of students taking advantage of the state-funded Workforce Ready Program, which supports students pursuing short-term, work-aligned credentials. Short-term programs also are popular in states like Virginia, Texas and Colorado. And Monty Sullivan, president of Louisiana’s two-year college system, recently told Congress that even as two-year colleges experience declines in traditional degree enrollments, they’re seeing increasing demand for shorter programs. “Students are showing up at our doorstep, in long lines, because they want to be a part of a short-term workforce opportunity that provides that value proposition … that gets them into the workforce in a shortened period of time,” Sullivan said.

People have gotten the message that good jobs—today and in the future—require education beyond high school. But many expect college to look different and be available in shorter bursts. At the same time, the fast-changing economy and tight job market is prodding employers to get more creative in hiring workers. And Congress may soon throw its weight behind shorter education pathways, via bipartisan efforts to create “short-term” Pell Grants to support credentials that can be completed in as little as two months.

Understanding the ROI

Even as Americans are seeking out career-connected education paths, we don’t know enough about which options make good on that promise. The U.S. Department of Education doesn't collect meaningful data on short-term programs, and that makes it difficult for both policy makers and the public to fully understand the return on investment produced by these credentials. To protect both students and taxpayers, it’s essential that the federal government and states gather and share data on the ROI of workforce programs in a systematic way.

Pinning down ROI is a challenge across all of higher education, but it is particularly difficult for short-term and noncredit programs. Organizations like the nonprofit Burning Glass Institute are beginning to track the results and returns of short-term programs for both individuals and employers, as are states like Iowa, Indiana, Texas and Virginia. However, this shouldn’t be scattershot. The federal government needs to begin to establish policies and best practices for collecting these important data on noncredit, nondegree certificates.

The fact that the federal government hasn’t already done so isn’t a case for inaction on expanding Pell Grants to short-term programs, as some opponents would argue. Americans need access to a wider range of education—now. However, it is a case for significant investments—also now—in data systems that would help us better understand the payoff of higher education in all its forms.

Data on the labor market value of workforce credentials are a crucial economic indicator that can help governments and employers back the programs with the best returns. Many of the funding streams for these credentials come with requirements to measure their performance. But that information won’t be ready for years, and we can’t wait that long.

Mining Existing Data

The good news is that local data sources, including ROI information collected by community college systems and education agencies in a number of states, can be used now to provide powerful snapshots of which credentials are valued by employers. The data just aren’t consistently used that way today.

As we work to build a truly national measure of outcomes and ROI, we can start by looking at the short-term credentials that states funded with federal pandemic recovery funding and their own dollars, to get a better understanding of data standards, quality metrics and outcomes. And we need to start today.

Allowing students to use Pell Grants for short-term programs could be a game changer for the Americans who most need education to advance economically. It also could be a game changer for how we fund and hold higher education accountable, because eligible programs will be determined based on measurable outcomes.

Better data, better pathways to skills and good jobs—all roads lead to the same place, and the nation needs to start the journey to get there.

Joe May is chancellor emeritus of Dallas College and a senior affiliate with HCM Strategists. Mark Schneider is director of the Institute of Education Sciences at the Department of Education.

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