WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration on Monday formally launched a new consortium of colleges, employers and unions that is aimed at making it easier for students to turn their apprenticeship experience into academic credit.
Colleges participating in the consortium must agree to provide academic credit to students who complete certain apprenticeship programs. The institutions pledge to follow the credit recommendations made by third-party evaluators, who translate the skills learned during an apprenticeship into credit hours.
Vice President Joe Biden announced the initiative in remarks to community college presidents gathered here for the annual conference of the American Association of Community Colleges.
He said that apprenticeships and community colleges provided not only a pathway to the middle class for students but also a pipeline of well-trained employees for companies. The apprenticeship programs are particularly valuable, Biden said, because they allow students to “earn while they learn.”
He said that electricians who participate in an approved apprenticeship, for example, could earn up to 60 credits.
"That's a game change for a lot of people struggling to choose between going to work and going to college, when they can do both,” he said.
The goal of the apprenticeship program, the administration said, is to scale up to the national level the thousands of existing agreements between a single college and regional employer or union to provide credit for apprenticeships.
The American Council on Education and the National College Credit Recommendation Service are two third-party organizations that provide colleges with recommendations about how to translate apprenticeship experience into academic credit.
The evaluators compare the requirements of the apprenticeship program either to specific college courses or what would be covered in a semester of college, and make recommendations about how the apprenticeship experience translates into the traditional academic unit of credit hours.
Colleges are free to accept or reject those credit recommendations. But those participating in the consortium will now promise to accept those recommendations from ACE, NCCRS or an institution that has a similar evaluation process.
That will provide much-needed certainty for students who want to know whether they can use an apprenticeship as a path to a college degree, according to Tina Grant, former director of the National College Credit Recommendation Service who is now the executive director of Excelsior College’s center for assessment of post-traditional instruction, training and learning.
Apprenticeship programs are often “quite rigorous,” she said. “They might require a knowledge of the laws of physics, a lot of mathematics,” for instance.
“There’s historically been a division between technical and vocational programs and ‘attending college,’ but we’re seeing those merge now,” she said, adding that the consortium “really moves that agenda forward. We’re seeing that they don’t need to be two separate things.”
The voluntary consortium will be run by the Departments of Education and Labor. Among the colleges that have already signed on to the program are the Community College of Baltimore County and the Wisconsin and Ohio Community College systems. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union has also agreed to participate, an administration official said.
Biden urged the community college presidents to consider joining the consortium.
“We need you, desperately,” he said, pledging to follow up with community college leaders to check back in on their progress.
“Encouraging colleges to grant this kind of credit, we think, makes good sense,” said David Baime, senior vice president for government relations and research at the American Association of Community Colleges. “Just by shining a national spotlight, and facilitating it through this coordinating council, will hopefully make it easier for colleges to do this.”
The new apprenticeship consortium is the latest of many efforts in Washington, across the political spectrum, to provide greater support to and recognition of programs that involve using prior learning assessment as an alternative path to a credential. A related, but distinct, alternative model -- competency-based education -- is also gaining traction among policymakers in both parties.
Biden, along with his wife, Jill Biden, who is a community college instructor, also spent a large portion of their remarks praising the work of community colleges as vital to the economy.
"Unless we have the most skilled work force in the world, we will not be able to lead the world," Biden said, adding that community colleges also provide "the best, most direct avenue to the middle class for those who are struggling and those who are in the middle class."
He also drew laughs with a new take on a previous  line about his intimate connection to the issue of education.
Describing his strong support for community colleges, he said: “I think I’d have the same attitude did I not sleep with a community college professor every night.”
He quickly clarified: “The same one. The same, the same one.”