Targeting the labor market with free College


It’s time to combine two of the hottest topics in higher education: free college and apprenticeship.

States are already trying to use free college to address labor market demands. Arkansas, Kentucky, and Indiana have all created programs that only provide “free college” for particular certificates or degree programs that they believe are in demand.

Arkansas’ ArFuture program supports certificate and associate’s degrees that are either related to science, technology, engineering, and math or address identified regional areas of high need. Kentucky’s Work Ready Scholarship program pays for a number of industry recognized certificate and diploma programs. Indiana’s Workforce Ready Grant supports both credit and non-credit certificates that are identified by the state as high need and high wage.

All three of these programs rely on the state government’s analysis of data to try to predict what kind of employees the labor market is going to need. This is good as far as it goes but that tactic can run into to problems. First, government isn’t that good at predicting labor market need. Much of the data is lagging and, in an increasingly dynamic economy, this isn’t good enough. Also, these programs rely on colleges partnering closely with employers to ensure that the degrees and certificates the program is targeting actually meet employer needs. This is a very inexact science.

But there could be a better way. Tuition free apprenticeship does away with the guess work around whether credentials will be in demand. This is because apprentices are already students and employees. They are training for jobs that employers know they will need to fill. An apprenticeship consists of formal on the job training with a mentor and related technical instruction in the classroom. Apprentices are paid by the employer and they receive wage increases as they progress through their training and education. They also receive a credential when they finish the program.

While apprenticeship is traditionally concentrated in the skilled trades, it can and should spread to other in-demand occupations. This is particularly true for occupations that have degree requirements like healthcare and engineering. But right now, a major barrier is that employers (or the apprentice) bear the cost of both the on the job training and the tuition for the related technical instruction. Public funding for the college part of apprenticeships will make it a better deal for employers and apprentices.

The best part is tuition free apprenticeship addresses labor market needs without the government having to decide what those needs are. Because employers are, by definition, key partners in creating apprenticeships, there is less cause to worry about the alignment to the competencies employers actually need. At the same time, employers won’t work to create a program if they don’t need to hire the graduates.

Seeing its value, many states are already working to expand apprenticeship. Bringing that work together with a workforce focused free college agenda would create a powerful system to address labor market needs. States can also take some additional steps to better integrate apprenticeship into the college system. One way would be to follow the lead of states like North Carolina, Nebraska, Washington and Texas and include data on student apprentices as part of the state longitudinal data system. Knowing where apprentices are enrolled for their related technical instruction will allow states to better target their support.

It is time for states to investigate creating free college for apprentices and build their workforce.