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Apprenticeships or College? How About Both?

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It's a time-worn idea: a young person becomes an apprentice, probably in traditional trades like construction, and then goes out into the working to earn good middle-class wages without a college degree.

But why should apprenticeships exclude college? And how can they be expanded in fields like cybersecurity and healthcare, where they could play a key role in career preparation? What changes could we make that would allow more young people to get the benefits of both apprenticeship and college?

Those are the questions at the heart of a paper released this week by the think tank New America. Apprenticeship is a hot topic now, part of President Donald Trump's vision for all high school students, and increasingly popular among policymakers as a way to build job skills and nourish the labor market without the time and debt of a bachelor's degree.

But in the rush to elevate apprenticeships, some fear that the value of college could be overlooked. As the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce has pointed out, there are many jobs that pay good salaries and don't require bachelor's degrees. But that varies significantly from field to field, and four-year degrees, overall, still carry a hefty wage premium.

The folks at New America set out to imagine a system that could offer a blend of apprenticeship and higher education experience for young people. The idea is to break down the barriers that perpetuate the idea that students need to choose one pathway or the other. 

What has to happen to put that vision into practice? New America's Center on Education and Skills, led by Mary Alice McCarthy, argues that one reason apprenticeships aren't expanding as much as they could in the United States is because they don't offer the credentials that are important to future success in most career fields: associate and bachelor's degrees.

But what if they did? New America recommends these policy changes to help bring about that shift.

  • Create a new class of student and degree, the "student-apprentice" and the "degree apprenticeship." Connect registered apprenticeships with postsecondary programs and create a "clear pathway" to pursue both together.
  • Use the new definitions in all federal laws that support higher education, career technical education, and workforce development.
  • Expand the federal work-study program to support apprenticeship so it can cover the work of student-apprentices.
  • Adjust eligibility criteria to ensure that student apprentices qualify for state financial aid and "free college" programs, especially in the case of apprenticeships that funnel students into areas of high labor market need.
  • Create a new discretionary grant program, funded with money from the H-1B Visa program, to support the development of degree-apprenticeship programs through partnerships among higher education, employers, industry associations, and other entities.
  • Deputize state agencies to oversee and track registered apprenticeship programs.
  • Design competency-based curricula. Bring together business experts, accrediting agencies, educators and others to create the curricula for degree apprenticeships and define principles of quality.

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