Making Higher Ed More Accountable for Student Job Outcomes
Many colleges claim to help students find good jobs—but Texas State Technical College takes that to a new level.
The multi-campus community college has a unique mission and funding structure. It’s not designed to help students study the liberal arts or transfer to four-year universities; instead, it prepares people to work as power linemen and dental hygienists. Its budget from the state of Texas depends on the employment outcomes of its students.
And that’s not simply a question of whether new graduates receive job offers. Instead, Texas State Technical College tracks how its alumni fare in the workforce for five years after graduation, calculating how much more money than minimum wage they earn during that period.
“All we do is curate, carefully, a large list of technical programs that consistently produce great jobs for our graduates,” says Mike Reeser, chancellor and CEO of Texas State Technical College.
This level of accountability for making sure graduates land jobs and take home good pay is rare in higher education. But a few efforts aim to change that—at least for institutions that explicitly promise to train people for jobs.
The U.S. Department of Education has been rethinking a “gainful employment” rule intended to ensure career-education programs pay off for students. Meanwhile, leaders of a new organization, called the Workforce Talent Educators Association, hope to create a quality-assurance system that holds workforce programs to high standards.
If successful, these efforts wouldn’t force most liberal arts degree programs to prove that they offer students a return on investment. But they could create pressure across higher education for institutions to better demonstrate how well they set graduates up for jobs.
“We can’t go on forever disregarding what the customer is seeking from us,” Reeser says. “Either higher ed has to acknowledge they’re in the workforce-training business, or the customer is going to find something that does. It will be awfully easy for them to find it cheaper and faster.”
With the COVID-19 pandemic shrinking college enrollments and making it hard for employers to hire and retain workers, and as legislators in Congress consider allowing low-income students to use Pell Grants to pay for short-term job-training programs, the time may be right for such providers to prove their quality, says Jane Oates, president of the nonprofit WorkingNation and former assistant secretary for the Department of Labor Employment and Training Administration.
“Even though there’s four jobs for every seeker right now, I think there is a real move by workers to further professionalize themselves, to move to salaried careers and get out of hourly. That’s why they’re being a little bit picky,” Oates says. “People who want to come back and get a short-term credential or degree, they want to know whether this is going to get me a job.”
It’s tricky to assess how worthwhile a job-training program is. Part of the difficulty comes from trying to define what exactly counts as “quality,” says Stephanie Riegg Cellini, a professor of public policy and economics at George Washington University who studies for-profit higher education.
Is success a high program-completion rate? A strong job-placement rate? A comparison between how much students earned before starting a program and how much they earn after graduating?
These outcomes matter, and additional transparency about them is “always helpful,” Cellini says. But because some metrics can be manipulated to mislead potential customers, she adds, it’s important that outcomes are “measured correctly and objectively using appropriate data and methods.”
Several entities are trying to tackle the challenge of discerning value in job-prep programs. The Higher Learning Commission, which accredits colleges and universities, is considering accreditation changes for non-degree workforce credentials, according to Holly Zanville, a research professor and co-director of the Program on Skills, Credentials, and Workforce Policy at George Washington University. And the nonprofit Quality Assurance Commons has created a certification process that measures whether workforce courses teach what the organization calls “essential employability qualities.”
Cellini argues that the federal government has an important role to play in assessing the quality of job-training programs, especially because of its access to reliable data and its power to hold institutions accountable. Discussions about the best way to do this are happening at the Department of Education, which is considering updated rules about financial-aid eligibility at for-profit colleges and non-degree programs at nonprofit colleges. The new proposed policies would compare the earnings of program graduates to their student-loan debts, as well as to the earnings of other people who only have high school diplomas. The federal agency estimates that a significant share of programs would fail its proposed quality tests.
Conversations on this topic are also happening in the U.S. Congress, where elected officials are debating whether to make short-term job-training programs eligible for Pell Grants. Proponents and opponents disagree about how to determine which programs are of high-enough quality to merit federal investment. The most recent proposed policies would allow low-income people to use Pell Grants to pay for training programs that lead to jobs in “high-skill, high-wage, or in-demand industry sectors or occupations” and that prove graduates earn at least 20 percent more than they did before completing. Such programs would be required to publish information about their tuition costs, completion rates, and the employment rate and earnings of graduates.
Opting Into Accountability?
More than a decade of experience as a college economics professor convinced Jennifer Dirmeyer that many people need alternative pathways to well-paying careers.
Among her students who struggled to complete college, “not one of them was having trouble because of a lack of academic preparation,” Dirmeyer says. “Most were having trouble because of having so much going on in their lives. They didn’t have the mental space for commitment to a four-year program.”
The former professor credits that observation with setting her on the path to co-create the new Workforce Talent Educators Association. The group’s goal is to provide quality-assurance services to job-training programs of all kinds, including those run by bootcamps, technical schools, community colleges and four-year colleges and universities.
Dirmeyer hopes that eventually the Workforce Talent Educators Association stamp of approval will signal to prospective students that a job-training program will pay off for them, while also signaling to prospective employers that program graduates are worth hiring.
“We have challenged ourselves to create a quality-assurance program that gives schools a market advantage,” Dirmeyer says.
The organization plans to focus on three areas while assessing programs. First is workforce outcomes, including data about participant completion, job placement, earnings and return on investment. Second is the quality of key services, including teaching and career counseling. Third is how relevant program curricula are to what employers are looking for from workers.
Early partners of the Workforce Talent Educators Association include Texas State Technical College, which is lending its expertise in identifying in-demand job skills, as well as Reach University, which trains teachers, and Fullstack Academy, a coding bootcamp.
So far, the association is not a government-recognized accrediting body, although it may pursue that designation in the future. Without the incentive of official accreditation, it remains to be seen whether job-training programs will opt into more accountability by voluntarily submitting to and paying for a quality-assurance system like that offered by the Workforce Talent Educators Association
Oates thinks some will—in order to better sell themselves to potential students.
“As more people get into this space—I’m thinking of inexpensive for-profits—are community colleges going to want some proof that they do this as well as their competitors?” Oates says. “I think there will be some market push for this.”