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When people talk about free community college, they’re most likely thinking about tuition-free programs like those in Tennessee or the one proposed by President Obama, which focus on getting students to an associate degree with as little debt as possible.

But in Indiana, a new proposal -- the Workforce Ready Grant -- would instead offer free community college to those students who want a certificate in a high-demand field. While the certificates would vary by program, they typically take anywhere from 18 to 34 credit hours to complete or at most one year for a full-time student.

“We’re aware of what’s happening in Tennessee and other states, but we wanted to send a message to Hoosiers that if you come back and get a certificate in a high value area … then we will pay for it,” said Teresa Lubbers, Indiana’s commissioner for higher education.

Indiana projects that by 2025 the state will have about one million job openings due to retirements and new positions. But there are approximately 1.4 million working-age Hoosiers with a high school education or less. About 750,000 of the state’s residents have some college, but no associate degree or higher, and, of that population, about 170,000 have some kind of certificate.

The focus on college as a means not only for a degree but work force development is one the Trump administration and some academics seem to agree on.

The state has determined that a high-value certificate is one that has “high job placement, high completion rate, high wage and high demand.” Some of those potential certificates would be in the following fields: automation and robotics technology, medical office administration, supply chain management logistics, certified nursing assistant, welding, or commercial driver’s license.

Indiana only has two public institutions that provide two-year degrees and certificates -- Ivy Tech Community College and Vincennes University.

The Workforce Ready Grant would be a last-dollar program, where students would first use federal and state aid to cover the cost of college before using the grant aid, but the state plans to award the grant to all adults regardless of financial need. The Legislature and governor’s office are considering paying $2 million a year for the grant program. The state would only cover up to two years, and the cost of certificates is determined by the college's tuition per credit hour. For instance, Indiana residents at Ivy Tech paid $135.15 per credit hour last year.

Lubbers said there is a separate adult student grant paid for with existing money, and with the last-dollar component, the state is convinced it will be able to cover the costs.

And because the initiative could be appealing to working adults, there’s an opportunity for employers to provide tuition assistance.

“We used to hear employers say that if they trained and educated [employees] they would leave, but we don’t hear that anymore,” Lubbers said. “Now we hear that if we don’t train or scale them up, we can’t produce a product or services.”

Indiana has been trying to encourage more adults to go back to school. Last year the state launched the You Can Go Back initiative, which provides $1,000 in assistance to adult students. So far, more than 9,000 people have re-enrolled in college through that program.

The state has already seen an increase in the number of Indiana residents earning certificates. Since 2012, the state has increased certificates awarded by 32 percent, from 12,910 to 17,046. And 55 percent of the state’s certificate earners have gone on to complete an associate degree, while 25 percent have earned multiple certificates in the same year.

That growth in certificates is reflective of a nationwide trend to move toward quick credentials as they become more popular.

“Certificates are the fastest-growing award in postsecondary education, and that’s because the skill requirements at entry-level positions for what used to be high school jobs have increased, in part because they’ve shifted from manufacturing into service functions,” said Anthony Carnevale, a research professor and director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. “What Indiana is doing makes a good deal of sense, and it’s powerful. It breaks away from the American fascination with the high-school-to-Harvard pathway as the only pathway available to students.”

Lubbers said it’s common to hear adult students, in particular, complain that the barrier to pursuing a degree is the general education requirements that often come attached to programs that lead to a career.

But there are some areas of concern that students should be aware of before they pursue a certificate.

For instance, certificates tend to hold more value for men than they do for women, because the more valuable certificates tend to be in male-dominated industries, Carnevale said.

And if students want to pursue degrees or stack the certificates so they’re adding additional skills to their repertoire, they will be able to do that with the certificates Indiana awards, Lubbers said.

“Even the credits from a stackable certificate will often not be transfer worthy after a few years,” said Mary Alice McCarthy, director of the Center on Education and Skills for New America. “That’s one reason why certificates that lead to occupational licenses or industry certifications can be more valuable than just stand-alone certificates, even if they are for credit.”

Meanwhile, Ivy Tech officials are looking forward to seeing more students in its system embracing certificates. The system expects that it may have to increase health-care programs in order to meet the demand, as well, said Mary Jane Michalak, vice president of government relations at Ivy Tech.

“A work force certification and work force training and certificates are just as important and can be just as lucrative as bachelor’s degrees, and in some cases, students who graduate with a certificate will come out of college immediately making more than those pursuing a bachelor’s degree,” she said. “We need individuals at all levels, and it’s important we connect adults to the jobs that are available.”

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