Men Flock to Short-Term Career Ed

Some critics argue colleges aren’t doing enough to help working-class men earn certificates, but one Arkansas community college has found success in short-term programs. Is federal policy keeping up?

August 10, 2017

Since the presidential election, some have argued that colleges aren’t doing enough to help working-class people -- men in particular -- pursue the types of technical training that will get them good jobs.

A community college in Arkansas, however, is among those that have found success with just that population, but it's with programs that are often short-term and difficult for students to pay for with federal financial aid.

"We are focused on more career and technical education," said Jeremy Shirley, director of marketing and communications for Arkansas State University Newport. "All of our programs have advisory boards, and we tailor the programs to meet industry needs. That drives a lot of what we do, and our general education and liberal arts exist to supplement those programs."

ASU Newport, which is a two-year institution, has two unique partnerships, one for a four-week commercial truck-driving license and the other a 10-month high-voltage lineman program. While the college has offered the program in commercial truck driving for years, about two years ago ASU Newport entered an agreement with Maverick Transportation, a trucking company based in Little Rock, which transformed the college into one of the state's top commercial-driving centers.

Truck driving is a major industry in Arkansas, and students who can complete the certificate program can earn an annual salary of about $50,000, Shirley said, adding that most students who complete the program may make more. Last year the program had a total of 190 students, and this year there are 124 students.

"Trucking is big in the state of Arkansas because we have hubs like Maverick and we have MC Express," Shirley said, mentioning MC Express is another partner that sends students to the college for training.

Maverick sends about eight students to Newport every two weeks to complete the four-week rotation. The company also covers rent for their student employees. The Newport Economic Development Commission bought housing specifically for Maverick's student employees, who often travel across the state for the training, to have a place to live.

Meanwhile, the college also has an arrangement with Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas to train students in the high-voltage lineman technology program. Graduates can make about $40,000 a year in that occupation, and the co-op sends about 17 students a year to the program. The co-op also donates $130,000 a year for scholarships.

Jobs like truck driving, which may only require four to five weeks of training, can bring significant labor market returns -- 20 percent or more above what one can earn with a high school diploma, said Anthony Carnevale, director of the Center for Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University.

But one issue keeping the short-term programs from really taking off is the lack of financial aid availability. The commercial driver's license program costs $2,700 for students to complete the four weeks, and the lack of a CDL can prevent students from enrolling in other related programs -- students in ASU's diesel technology program are required to already have their commercial truck-driving licenses.

"This would have a huge impact for us if we had short-term Pell," Shirley said, adding that for Maverick student employees the company covers the cost of the program, but non-Maverick students may be paying out of pocket. If Maverick students work for the company for six months, their tuition is covered. However, if they leave before the six months or never start work at Maverick, then they must pay the company back for the education.

"But if you're going to have Pell to do [short-term programs], then you threaten the maximum grant amount," Carnevale said, adding that this has been a debate since at least the Clinton administration. "But we are headed there. Eventually, Pell will be a training grant. We can see this coming a mile off with all of the push for employability as an outcome standard."

Congress has already displayed bipartisan support for expanding Pell eligibility to short-term certificates, but it hasn't taken action on the issue.

The current political discussion seems to center around work force training for working-class men, who have been hit hard by economic changes since the early 1980s, Carnevale said, adding that men don’t have as much access to high-wage jobs as they did in the past, as manufacturing and construction have decreased.

Both truck-driving and commercial-driving programs tend to be dominated by men, while the health-care programs are dominated by women, Shirley said, adding that there are some women who have pursued truck-driving careers. But the program is more than 94 percent male, while enrollment in allied health fields at the college is 80 percent female, with the practical nursing program made up of more than 87 percent of women.

But mostly, students don't want to go into these programs if they don’t have financial aid, Shirley said.

"At the end of the day, some of these people may not have a job at all or they can't go to school full-time and work full-time to provide for their families. It's too difficult," he said.

A four-week program may sound easy to handle if you're going without employment, but not if you're paying for it out of pocket, he said.

"Our students want to know how much money will they make, how long will it take and what will their title be when they leave," he said, adding that the college's marketing focuses on those three things as a way to recruit more students. "The majority of our marketing budget is focused on welding, manufacturing and agriculture. We're trying to close that skills gap our industry partners have told us about as the work force continues to age."

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Ashley A. Smith

Ashley A. Smith, Reporter, covers community colleges, for-profit schools and non-traditional students for Inside Higher Ed. She joined the publication in 2015 after covering government and K-12 education for the Fort Myers News-Press in Florida for three years. Ashley also covered K-12 and higher education for three years at the Marshfield News-Herald in Wisconsin. She has interned with The Flint Journal, USA Today and the Detroit Free Press. Ashley grew up in Detroit and is a 2008 graduate of Michigan State University. 

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