Got You Covered: How States Can Support The Costs Of Apprentice Instruction
In some places, for some people, college is tuition-free. Statewide college promise programs have gotten off the ground in 16 states. In nine states, high school students can pursue college coursework paid in full by their school district or the state itself. Still other states offer free college to veterans or Purple Heart recipients, for example. But in Florida, you can get free tuition even if you’re years out of high school, and haven’t served in the military. You just have to be an apprentice.
Florida’s colleges are prohibited by state law from charging any tuition or fees for students enrolled for the classroom component of their apprenticeship—called “related technical instruction” or RTI in U.S. Department of Labor jargon. Apprentice tuition waivers of this type are rare, but Florida’s is not the only example. In Washington state, colleges may only charge apprentices 50% of tuition; in North Carolina, youth apprentices can take college coursework completely tuition-free.
Sounds good, right? For apprentices, at least, college tuition waivers are a huge blessing. For their employers, too, waivers mean one less cost to worry about, and more companies may decide to start up programs. If so, state governments can also claim a win. In North Carolina, the youth apprenticeship waiver has helped grow the number of youth apprentices from just over 850 in 2016 to over 2,700 in 2018. Tuition waivers can have an unintended but pronounced chilling effect on colleges, however, if they aren’t paid to offset the waiver, as they are in North Carolina.
Having no tuition, no fees, and no additional support from either the state or an employer means that Florida’s tuition waiver actually functions as a tuition exemption. As such, it shorts colleges of money they need to develop curricula and facilities, and to build partnership networks with newcomer employers. Compared to the surge in apprentice enrollment in North Carolina, growth in college-connected apprenticeships in both Florida and Washington is stagnant despite efforts by several colleges to do more with apprenticeship pathways.
Degree apprenticeship opportunities have grown considerably in recent years in countries like Germany, France, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. But in the United States, despite the growing appeal of work-based learning and the persistent importance of college credentials, college-connected apprenticeships are few and far between. American higher education and apprenticeship systems were never intended to work together, and federal and state legislators have only recently begun to dismantle the barriers that separate them.
State policymakers draw on a growing number of policy tools to support the expansion of non-traditional, college-connected apprenticeships. Alongside tuition waivers, three other state funding approaches can support apprentices’ classroom costs: reimbursement systems; competitive grant programs; and scholarships.
Nothing in Texas or California law prohibits apprentices from being charged tuition. But most colleges don’t need to charge them, since colleges can receive reimbursement from state coffers for the training hours they provide under an apprenticeship contract. Much more common than either tuition waivers or reimbursement systems are grant initiatives aimed at developing and expanding nontraditional apprenticeships. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, grants are available in seven of the 29 states whose legislatures passed new apprenticeship bills between 2016 and 2018; in other states, governors have launched such initiatives. Finally, states can develop new scholarships that support apprentices’ classroom instruction—or adapt existing ones to allow apprentice participation, as Kentucky did last year for its Educational Excellence Scholarship.
Each approach has advantages and drawbacks, and some can have unintended consequences. A waiver combined with a regularly funded reimbursement model—even a fairly limited one such as North Carolina’s, which cost only about $200,000 in 2018—can help keep an expanded apprenticeship system running, but does nothing to support program startup costs. Competitive grants, on the other hand, often aim to do just that, but are typically only funded for a few years. In the worst case, that can lead to short-terms wins, when a long-term vision is needed. Unfunded tuition exemptions discourage college participation in apprenticeship. And perhaps worst of all, requiring apprentices to rely on federal student aid for their classroom instruction risks negating apprenticeships’ financial advantages over traditional college pathways.
Luckily, there are many ways to do apprenticeship finance right. As state leaders plot out their apprenticeship goals, they can draw on one or more of these four approaches to match their state’s objectives as well as their financial and political constraints.
Apprenticeship programs in nursing, cybersecurity, and even filmmaking were all represented at the national convening of state and local leaders of the Partnership to Advance Youth Apprenticeship in Charleston, S.C., last month. All of these occupations, and many more, will make up America’s future apprenticeship ecosystem. To get there, though, apprenticeship must serve as a pathway to college as well as a career. The costs of classroom instruction—and the question of who pays them—are an important hidden barrier to expanding college-connected apprenticeships. Always the laboratories of policy and democracy, it’s good to see states thinking through different strategies to address it.
Author Perspective: Analyst