Published on 2013/10/15

Should Public Financial Aid be Made Available to Continuing Education Students? (Part 6)

Should Public Financial Aid be Made Available to Continuing Education Students? (Part 6)
There are some clear changes that will bring certificates and continuing education programming from the periphery to the core of higher education.

This is the sixth and final installment in a six-part series by Karen LaMarsh on financial aid for continuing education students. In the last installment, LaMarsh explained how increasing accessibility to continuing education programs through financial aid could positively benefit statewide employment and institutional performance metrics. In this piece, she explains how increasing access to continuing education — specifically certificate programs — can positively impact the nation’s education attainment goal.

Making America the Leader in Attainment

On December 7, 2010, Tom Sugar released a Complete College America report regarding certificate programs.  The report argued that sub-baccalaureate certification programs are underused and underfunded, but extremely practical given the United States’ focus on economic recovery and workforce enhancement. Sugar pointed out that these programs can help students earn more money and move higher up the ladder in their careers. In addition, he argues these programs are critical for students who are either unprepared or unable to complete a traditional four-year degree.

In the report, Sugar made five major recommendations for the improvement of sub-baccalaureate certificate availability and access. They are:

1. Count certificates toward attainment goals.

Certificate completion should be counted toward institutional and state degree completion rates. This will make them more attractive for institutions to offer, and for states to fund.

2. Set aggressive goals for long-term certificate production and help colleges meet them.

Federal and state government bodies should be more focused on ensuring students are enrolling in, and completing, certificate programs. This could be achieved through setting a national target for certificate completion.

3. Reward long-term certificates.

States should put funding formulas and other policy incentives in place to support robust certificate programs of one year or more in length. Conversely, short-term programs that do not have clear labor-market payoffs for graduates should be discouraged or scrapped.

4. Collect outcomes data, and promote labor-market alignment and consistent program offerings.

Along the same lines, institutions and states should be focused on understanding how effectively their certificate programs prepare graduates for the labor market. In this way, they can understand how the certificates are being used, and how the programs must evolve to ensure graduates find work upon completion. 

5. Focus on, and improve, certificate program completion.

Simply put, policymakers at both the federal and state levels should be focused on improving the completion rate of certificate programs. Sugar suggests institutions look at “built-for-completion” programs that offer students scheduling and enrollment options tied closely to their needs. Additionally, certificate programs and associate’s degree programs should be more closely linked to support the transition of certificate graduates to two-year colleges.

With these goals, and federal and state financial aid for these programs, accessibility and participation in continuing education could increase, making the United States the leader in postsecondary attainment.

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Tom Sugar, “Research Shows Value of Sub-baccalaureate Certificates to Students and Employers.” Complete College America. Devember 7, 2010.

This is the final installment in Karen LaMarsh’s series exploring the availability of federal and state financial aid funding for non-traditional students enrolling in continuing education programs. To read the previous articles, please click below:

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Readers Comments

Tyrese Banner 2013/10/15 at 1:22 pm

I work in academic advising and it’s surprising the number of prospective adult students I met with who thought going back to school for ‘skills upgrading’ meant getting a degree. Anything the government can do to make postsecondary options clearer for students and to promote non-degree programming is welcome.

I think there should also be a focus on encouraging lifelong learning. Many of the students I advised were hesitant to enroll in certificate, rather than degree, programs. They would tell me they were worried certificates, by being too specific, would quickly become obsolete. When I pointed out they could always return to school later to upgrade their skills in a new certificate program, and that this option was likely more affordable than getting a degree, they seemed genuinely surprised. More could certainly be done to provide better information to prospective adult students.

Stacy Hexner 2013/10/16 at 10:58 am

I’ve enjoyed reading this series and learned a lot about the funding options available for continuing education (or lack thereof). Hopefully, by the next time LaMarsh does a series on financial aid and continuing education, there will have been some improvements on the issues she’s identified here.

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