This fall, Dixie State University is discounting certain courses to just $20 a credit for students who've lost their jobs or are underemployed because of the coronavirus pandemic. The offer is meant to encourage them to enroll in one of several new certificate programs the Utah institution designed to help impacted workers quickly enter a high-demand field.
Although the programs are short-term, officials are hopeful some students will continue their education even after they find new jobs. "They're stackable credentials," said Darlene Dilley, the university's assistant vice president for enrollment management. "It's taking them a step further toward the completion of, ultimately, a bachelor's degree — if they so choose."
The certificates are part of a new state program to provide short-term training opportunities to workers impacted by the pandemic. The Utah Legislature passed a bill in June creating the initiative and is supporting the program with $9 million in funds the state received from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
That's helping officials at Dixie State to turn existing courses into discounted short-term programs that lead to certificates in several fields, such as accounting and marketing, information technology and health communications. Other colleges participating in the initiative are taking a slightly different approach. Utah Valley University is offering 21 tuition-free career development courses, which span topics from business and human resources to construction and IT.
The state initiative is one way colleges are responding to the economic crisis created by the pandemic. Some 30 million people were collecting unemployment benefits as of early August, and the unemployment rate was around 10% in July, the latest available figure.
Colleges usually see enrollment gains during economic downturns because students seek out additional education to make themselves more attractive to employers. But the pandemic presents an acute challenge for schools, which must determine which industries are still hiring in order to help students land jobs.
"It's important for colleges, whether they be community colleges or four-year institutions, to be working really closely with their local business community, with their public workforce system leaders and also community-based organizations, to really be designing solutions that are going to work for workers in this moment," said Maria Flynn, president and CEO of Jobs for the Future, a workforce development nonprofit.
A constellation of efforts
Several states are using higher education to help rebuild their workforce during the pandemic. The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) and the National Governors Association, for example, are spearheading a network of governors' offices, community colleges and workforce development offices that will share strategies for retraining workers who've lost their jobs because of the coronavirus. About 20 states have signed onto the effort.
"Right now, we're really focused on fast strategies … to rebuild a talent pipeline for local businesses," said Martha Parham, an AACC spokesperson. "It can't just be done by a community college. It can't just be done by a workforce investment board."
Other states are undertaking individual efforts. In April, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced a program called "Futures for Frontliners," which allows essential workers — such as hospital and grocery store personnel — to attend college or a technical school tuition-free. And Virginia debuted an initiative in late June that gives $1,000 stipends to out-of-work state residents after they complete certain short-term programs at community colleges.
Colleges have their own initiatives as well. For example, Purdue University Global created an online course on contact tracing that's based on guidelines from the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help people get jobs tracking the spread of the coronavirus. It is free through the end of the year. So far, about 9,300 people have registered for the course and around 2,900 have earned a certificate that they can present to a public health agency in pursuit of work.
"It has been completed by a wide variety of folks who are interested in either just learning about the contact-tracing methodology or those who will pursue some type of employment in this capacity," said Melissa Burdi, dean and vice president of the online university's nursing school.
Likewise, Davenport University, in Michigan, offered a free course over the summer to unemployed workers that was based on an existing career skills class.
But it came with a twist. Officials tweaked the curriculum to focus on how to find jobs remotely and create a "professional persona online," said Brian Miller, dean of Davenport's online global campus and academic systems. About 100 people finished the course, and the university may offer it again, Miller added.
Some institutions are teaming up with employers to provide free training. The City University of New York, for instance, recently rolled out its 90-day Upskilling Challenge designed for its students and recent graduates to take free virtual courses from providers such as Coursera, Google and Salesforce, though the program's webpage says any New Yorker can participate.
Financing the training
Even though some colleges are offering free or discounted programs to help workers find jobs, higher ed experts said schools should consider other ways they can financially support students. They may need help covering nontuition costs, such as those for textbooks or laptops, to complete the classes. And short-term programs may not be eligible for federal aid.
To help with those issues, Miami Dade College launched a program called Kick-Start Your Career that's meant to help workers find new jobs. It's part of the MDC Cares initiative, which is funded in part using allocations from the CARES Act to provide students with scholarships and other financial support.
The Kick-Start program is free to students and comes with an added perk — a $100-per-credit-hour living stipend. "We told them, ‘We're not only going to give you free tuition, but we're going to pay you to come and study,'" said Antonio Delgado, Miami Dade's dean of engineering, technology and design.
And at Dixie State, students taking the discounted certificate programs can apply for federal financial aid because the classes stack into full degrees. That allows students to use any aid on living expenses and other nontuition costs once they've paid the $20 per credit.
"We feel like that's a definite boost to our programs," Dilley said.