Passing Class No Guarantee of Certificate In New State Workforce Program

Average earnings three years before and one after completing the VCCS FastForward workforce certificate program. Source: SCHEV. Click for larger view.

Virginia’s FastForward workforce credential program now in its third year is showing good success in getting students through training, but a high number of people in some programs do not earn the matching certificate.  Those who achieve both usually show the highest wage growth.

For those who went into the program earning under $20,000 a year, the subsequent increase in earnings is dramatic, almost 140 percent year over year.  “We are serving a very high need population, even compared to the traditional community college population,” said Lori Dwyer, assistant vice chancellor for programs for the Virginia Community College System.  

The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia released a detailed report on the program last month.  The General Assembly expressed its continued support in a tangible way, agreeing to increase the base funding for next year more than 40 percent to $13.5 million.  It also added $1 million to need-based financial aid to help students struggling to cover their one-third cost share.

Wage growth for 2016 FastForward participants who had been in low-wage jobs. The class and the certificate were both needed for the highest impact. Source: SCHEV

These certificates or licenses are a recognized credential between the high school diploma and an associate degree, and in the right fields are that ticket to better jobs and wages.  Less than three years ago the state started offering students a chance to earn them with the state covering two-thirds of the cost, working though Virginia’s 23 community colleges.  Previously financial aid was limited to degree programs.  The certificate programs are chosen with employer input.

VCCS is marketing this as FastForward, but it is also described as the New Economy Workforce Credential Grants.  Demand was so high enrollment for the 2018-19 term was closed by November.  VCCS has been pushing for rapid growth, but SCHEV is going a bit slower and watching the data.

“We will see how next year goes,” was Wendy Kang’s response when asked the ultimate size expected.  Kang is director for innovation and finance policy at SCHEV.  Enrollment grew to 3,760 this third year, with 3,457 finishing the class and 2,518 earning a credential.  The three-year total enrollment has exceeded 8,100.  Dwyer has been with the program since the start but admits being surprised “by the degree of the pent-up demand.”

The most popular program trains people for the commercial driver’s license needed to operate tractor-trailer rigs, and of the 1,098 students enrolled last year over 92 percent completed the class and 80 percent earned the license, in that case an absolute requirement for the jobs.  The program costs the students an average of $1,448 and the state paid an average of $2,878 for each new licensee.

In the category of computer and mathematical, of the 378 enrolled there were 350 course completions (93 percent) but only 102 credentials obtained (27 percent.)  Of 146 enrolled in the CompTIA A+ course, 132 passed but only 22 earned the credential.  Of 60 in the network class, 56 passed but only 11 earned the credential.

Low credential attainment also showed up in some of the healthcare fields and administrative and office support.  Three medical jobs are on the top-ten list for number of credentials:  medical assistant, phlebotomy technician (ouch) and certified nurse aide.  But another one where students were struggling with the certificate was pharmacy technician, where 77 of 79 passed the course but only 24 got the license.

The schools usually don’t offer the test for the credential or license, and in some cases may not have been notified when someone passes.  Their full reimbursement depends on that information, however, so there is incentive to find out.

Dwyer said VCCS is excited to be getting the kind of data it needs to adjust the programs and improve success.  These are open enrollment programs with no pre-admission screening, Dwyer said, so “students come to that who do not have IT backgrounds.”  Going forward there will be some evaluation as new students enter to target more support for students who need it.

Tracking the earnings of a set of graduates for three years before they took the classes and then immediately after, the earnings of the computer skills graduates dropped.  It happened only in that program.  This may also reflect the higher percentage of them not earning the certificate.  The data do show those students were already earning a higher average wage when they signed up.

The absence of any of the computer certifications on the list of the ten most-granted stands out, not that Virginia doesn’t also need welders and manufacturing technicians.   Virginia wisely is tracking certificate production just as closely as associate’s, bachelor’s and graduate degrees, and not everybody hired by technology giants such as Amazon will need a college degree.  Annual production of these certificates in the scores or low hundreds is not going to be enough in the long run.

The 283 enrollees at Northern Virginia Community College was small given the relative size of that school.  Two Richmond-area schools working together had almost 500 enrolled in 2018, while the enrollment in Danville, with its high regional unemployment, was 18.  Jeff Kraus, VCCS vice chancellor for strategic communications, said that reflects individual school choices, but noted seven presidencies are open and workforce training is being stressed in the search process.

There is financial risk for the individual schools.  If all goes as planned, the student pays one-third and the state two-thirds of the cost, leaving no cost to the school.  If the student passes the class but earns no certificate, or misses both marks, there is no reimbursement from the state pot of funding for one-third of the program cost.  Whether that is holding some schools back is another question the state needs to address.

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6 responses to “Passing Class No Guarantee of Certificate In New State Workforce Program

  1. This is another one of those half-glass empty/half-glass full perspectives.

    Very few people are aware of this program much less that they are actually instrumented it to gather statistics on it’s effectiveness.

    Clearly, it is having some success, for example, the CDL program ” … of the 1,098 students enrolled last year over 92 percent completed the class and 80 percent earned the license, in that case an absolute requirement for the jobs. The program costs the students an average of $1,448 and the state paid an average of $2,878 for each new licensee.”

    and there are challenges: ” struggling with the certificate was pharmacy technician, where 77 of 79 passed the course but only 24 got the license.”

    gathering this information is exceptionally important, because now they now they have to work on this issue –

    There is a LOT to like here: ” There is financial risk for the individual schools. If all goes as planned, the student pays one-third and the state two-thirds of the cost, leaving no cost to the school. If the student passes the class but earns no certificate, or misses both marks, there is no reimbursement from the state pot of funding for one-third of the program cost. Whether that is holding some schools back is another question the state needs to address.”

    so there is not only transparency of the program abut real accountability for the performance of the program.

    We have so many problems these days -a lot of them self-inflicted – like the college entrance cheating scandal and the abysmal performance of schools like the Richmond Public School system – to name two – but we also have success and more important, we have people who know what to do to turn things around – just not enough of them.

    Thanks much for your article and hopefully more folks find out about this very significant program that is truly helping a lot of folks and really dealing with a 21st century problem – a 4 year degree is not the answer to the 21st century workforce.

  2. This program is a great idea, important to many of us. I’m confident VCCS and SCHEV will work on the rough patches, and commend them for being open with so much info.

    • This is one of the most important posts I have read on Bacon’s Rebellion. One should also read the State’s Jan. 31, 2019 report on the program’s achievements found at:

      http://www.schev.edu/docs/default-source/Reports-and-Studies/2019/workforcereport2018.pdf

      This report is linked into Jim’s post.

      This report, unlike so many other government reports, documents real and meaningful program successes and short falls. It shows beyond any doubt that this program works effectively, training people to learn real marketable skills that change their lives, giving them jobs they’d never otherwise earn.

      Program shortfalls are also documented. Skills sets that are not being transferred to students are clearly delineated. Here needed adjustments are obvious. And the overarching question is also clear: How do we expand this wonderfully successful cost effective program to satisfy overwhelming demand?

      It’s a big question, given that little profit goes to the schools teaching this program. That’s the irony. The program’s low cost versus its high benefit acts to disadvantage its growth.

      Why? Because today non-profit schools are a myth. They don’t exist. If they did, most learning would be as affordable as this program!

      So might Virginia’s education establishment kill this program in its cradle, rather than allow it to threaten the gravy train that establishment now rides?

      Perhaps this is why Wendy Kang, director for innovation and finance policy at SCHEV, when asked about the program’s ultimate size, responded:

      “We will see how next year goes.”

      Next we need to talk about how this already successful program might add courses that solidify, enhance, and expand, the chances for student success.

  3. If this program succeeds and it sure looks like it’s got “legs” – I would expect it to appeal to people who might have otherwise thought about a traditional college.

    Over time – that could significantly reduce demand for 4 year colleges which are now not only very expensive but graduates end up deep in debt.

    I’ve always thought traditional 4yr college is a bit of an anachronism in the 21st century economy and it leaves many deep in debt including those who cannot get a decent job even with their 4yr degree – not to mention those that fail to graduate.

    Germanna Community College in the Fredericksburg area is doing a bang up job for fields like health care. Hundreds of young people are getting good jobs with minimal education costs and low or no debt.

  4. Reed, I’d say the report shows the program works well in some fields, but the lack of success in the highly-important IT realm struck me as a huge red flag. Let’s hope they continue to be as open with the data going forward.

  5. Steve, I agree regarding IT portion. But I suggests this program is greatly needed in any event, and perhaps can be greatly expanded to fill additional gaps in our system of education today, gaps that cry out for solution if we are to build capable citizens in today’s society. I hope to come back to this before long, with suggestions.

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