Thursday, March 21, 2013

Financial difficulties in obtaining community college certificates

Credit:  CarbonNYC
Community colleges are famous for offering second chances to people who have had disadvantages and set-backs.  Community colleges have been the institution most responsible for expanding college access to disadvantaged youth, and today about a third of college students under age 25 are enrolled in community college.

Certificates seem to be more attainable than degrees because they require fewer credits while offering real job skills; I'm currently doing research on that topic.  The NY Times just published a story about how financial aid is often unavailable to students seeking non-degree certificates.

The story is comprehensive, and I won't rehash it here, but parts of it surprised me.  I knew that employers required certificates in many new areas where there was no tradition of training employees on the job, such as information technology.   I had not realized how many traditional jobs --- police officers, fire fighters, and machinists --- had stopped training employees and required potential employees to obtain certificates in advance.  These employers are not social service agencies, and it may make financial sense for them to cut costs by outsourcing employee training to an outside entity.  Until funding for certificate programs becomes available, the most disadvantaged people are prevented from entering these fields. 

The reason that the government doesn't offer financial aid for certificate programs is because of the presumption that certificates don't prepare students for jobs.  Now that we know that some certificate programs prepare people for good jobs --- some of which are higher paying than BAs --- we ought to give financial aid for the programs.  But which programs?  All programs?  Carnevale in this article suggests that, given our limited funds, funding should go to job-relevant certificates instead of to 4 year English bachelors degrees.  While sensible, that rule may not be practical to implement.   How could a bank or the federal government determine which credentials might lead to good jobs, and which ones will not?

Federal educational loan default rates are extremely low, under 10%.  The government may even make a small profit on its educational loan program.  The federal government could easily cover the cost of expanding its loan program to cover certificates, and provide information about certificates similar to what it publishes about degree programs.  Expanding federal financial aid to community college certificates would be a worthwhile investment in our country's human capital, and also help disadvantaged adolescents and young adults transition into the labor force.  

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