June 25, 2018

Colleges seek out cheaper students as fewer traditional students apply

Nichols College in Dudley has a variety of business partnerships to teach new skills to career professionals, such as teaching supervisory skills at Fidelity Bank and developing a graduate program for a Boston accounting firm.

At a time when colleges are battling high costs and a shrinking pool of high school graduates, they are increasingly turning for growth to an area where they don't need to recruit students, house them in dorms or feed them in dining halls.

An area of sharp growth today is in non-degree credential programs, which many workers are using for quick opportunities to boost their resumes or gain new skills. Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Nichols College and nearly all other Central Massachusetts colleges are increasingly holding courses designed specifically for certain companies.

"It's a big movement all over the country," said Scott Greenberg, the associate vice president for academic affairs and the dean of continuing education at Framingham State University.

"It's really about options," Greenberg added. "You want to provide as many opportunities as you can for adults to continue on with their education and continue with their professional development. Not everyone is necessarily looking for a degree."

Colleges are increasingly educating students outside of the traditional undergraduate or graduate classroom to teach about health care, technology or other in-demand fields.

From 2000 to 2014, the number of non-degree credentials granted nationally by public four-year institutions rose fourfold, to 200,000, according to the U.S. Department of Education. At public two-year institutions, including community colleges, that number more than doubled in that time to nearly 500,000.

Educating people in non-degree programs helps colleges meet their mission of addressing workforce development needs and helps bring in revenue at a time when costs for students have been rising precipitously. Colleges typically hold such classes late in the afternoon, evenings or weekends, when classrooms would generally otherwise be empty, or offsite at a company's offices. In nearly all cases, non-degree students don't have to go through a school's traditional admissions process, and they don't take up space in dorms.

Such courses can sometimes be as short as a full-day session or as long as 12 months but typically span a matter of weeks. Some are online, which further helps colleges reach more students with relative ease.

Don Gibbs, an instructor in Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s Biomanufacturing Education & Training Center, teaches courses in partnership with area businesses.

"For people who are mid-career, this is a great way to keep up on lifelong learning," said Mary Piecewicz, the assistant dean of Clark University's School of Professional Studies.

The credit-rating agency Moody's said last fall it expects the non-degree growth trend to continue, citing data showing adults under age 34 are less likely to hold postsecondary certificates than those over 55. As the younger set of workers ages, they'll be more likely to seek out credential programs, Moody's said.

Making up for traditional losses

Growth in non-degree programs comes at the intersection of a few other trends in higher education. Costs are up, the number of students is down, and fewer people find the steep costs worth it.

Nearly half of adults – 47 percent – called college degrees not worth the cost, according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey last August. That's up from 40 percent in 2013.

The number of college students has now fallen for six straight semesters, according to a report last fall by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Since a peak in 2011, the drop has been nearly 2.1 million students, or more than 10 percent.

And a college degree is, of course, getting far more expensive. In the decade leading up to 2016, tuition and fees rose by 63 percent, according to the Consumer Price Index.

The push for more non-degree offerings is similar to colleges' increasing use of online courses for their lower overhead. As of the fall of 2016, more than 6 million students – nearly one in three – were taking an online course, marking the 14th straight year of growth, according to the Babson Survey Research Group's 2018 report.

Central Mass. programs

Central Massachusetts college officials said non-degree courses offer new sources of revenue but did not provide specific figures. Instead, officials said such programs are ways to educate those they might not otherwise reach and help employers and workers find new ways to advance their career.

People are thinking twice about investing in a degree mid-career, but they still value continuing education, said Paula Hogard, the director of continuing professional education and workforce development at Framingham State.

"They're extremely popular at the moment, especially with the Millennial workforce, who are looking at just-in-time training," Hogard said of quicker courses. "It's about helping to give people what they need at that stage in their life."

WPI typically holds more than 60 courses a year with companies it works with directly to develop course curriculum. The courses are generally held onsite at a company's offices.

The school has worked directly with industry partners since the 1970s, and the focus on "Theory and Practice," as WPI puts it in its motto, goes back to the school's founding, said Lew Rose, WPI's director of corporate partnerships.

"They're really developed to help industry solve problems and operate more efficiently," Rose said.

WPI typically teaches to manufacturing, energy, biotechnology or biomanufacturing employers, Rose said, to help their workers become more efficient or stay on top of industry trends.

"What's hot right now is what the future of work is going to look like," such as with automation, Rose said. "Because we're a technical school, a lot of companies we work with are already in this transition."

Other Central Massachusetts schools are working directly with companies to craft special courses. Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester has CVS help teach some of its pharmacy technician courses. Nichols College in Dudley held an 18-month program with Fidelity Bank to teach supervisory skills, situational leadership, and conflict and negotiations.

Nichols has incorporated such noncredit courses into its strategic plan, and the college signed an agreement in May with Boston accounting firm Wolf & Co. to create a graduate program specifically for Wolf workers. The college is developing agreements with other such companies as well.

"We're meeting a need that needs to be met in the business community," said Kerry Calnan, Nichols' director of graduate and professional studies.

Community college partnerships

Community colleges, which have long been more geared toward less-traditional students, now work more with local business leaders to craft course plans to specifically address needs of employers.

Mount Wachusett Community College in Gardner has a new certificate program for emergency medical technicians and this fall will start a noncredit certified management accountant program.

"When there's a need in the community, we'll work to address it," said Rachel Frick Cardelle, Mount Wachusett's vice president of lifelong learning.

QCC sees noncredit programs as allowing students who might be the first in their families to attend college to get comfortable without committing to school full-time.

"This lets them stick their toe in the water a little bit," said Kathie Manning, QCC's dean of the Center for Workforce Development and Continuing Education.


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