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It’s Time to Re-evaluate the Value of Skills Training

As students of all ages head back to school this season, Thomas Orr, a senior program officer in charge of workforce development programs for LISC Indianapolis, delves into the outdated ways we gauge the value of higher education. At a time when millions of people are in need of living-wage jobs, while millions of middle-skills jobs sit vacant, apprenticeships and other alternative pathways to satisfying careers make more sense than ever.

An interesting bill was introduced in both houses of Congress last year. The College Transparency Act would establish a system to “accurately evaluate student enrollment patterns, progression, completion, and post-collegiate outcomes, and higher education costs and financial aid at the student level.”

The idea is to take higher education out of a box. Escalating costs and lack of accountability for student outcomes have led many to question the return on investment in higher education. We know generally that people with a post-secondary degree earn more over a lifetime than those who do not, but we don’t know much about the efficacy of individual programs and institutions. Crippling loan debt is the order of the day for many who graduate without clear job prospects.

The debate centers on the real value of “seat time” and how well this system really measures student learning and demonstrated competency. The current system of awarding “credit” attainment in higher education dates back to the early 20th century when educators attempted to standardize the measurement of classroom learning. The “credit hour” has evolved to represent roughly one hour of class time per week over a 15- or 16-week semester. Hence a typical college course represents three credit hours – approximately 45 hours of classroom time per semester – awarded for satisfactory attendance and completion of other class requirements (papers, tests, lab assignments, etc.).

Purists will argue that the purpose, particularly of liberal arts education, is not to prepare for employment but to cultivate intellectual maturity, critical thinking, and problem-solving. Molly Worthen, an author and professor of history at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, wrote in a New York Times op-ed this year that "[p]roducing thoughtful, talented graduates is not a matter of focusing on market-ready skills. It’s about giving students an opportunity that most of them will never have again in their lives: the chance for serious exploration of complicated intellectual problems, the gift of time in an institution where curiosity and discovery are the source of meaning.” 

A traditional college degree should not be the only measure of personal fulfillment and success.

What Worthen doesn’t mention is the price tag on that opportunity and how a significant portion of our population can’t afford that luxury. The most recent College Board survey reports an average four-year cost at a public college of $101,160 and the average at a private college is $203,600.

Compare this to a building trades apprenticeship – learning while you earn and progressing through a rigorous competency-based curriculum that takes three to five years to complete. Private industry invests over $42 million per year here in Indiana on apprenticeship and journeyman upgrade training. Even so, the perceived value of a college credential can’t be denied, and the Indiana construction trades have aligned with Ivy Tech Community College to offer the Associate of Applied Science degree to all apprentices.

Indianapolis resident Tracey Boyd, and Antonio Gregory of Detroit, both know the value of apprenticeship as an alternative career pathway. Each completed training and certification though a LISC-funded Bridges to Career Opportunities program in his city. Boyd is now in the third year of an apprenticeship with Barth Electric Company in Indianapolis, earning $22/hour, while Gregory doubled his salary in an electrical apprenticeship in Detroit.

Still, old ideas die hard. Post-secondary institutions continue to distinguish between “credit” and “non-credit” classes based on the traditional notion of what constitutes a college credit. It suggests that non-credit course work means “less than.”  Nothing could be further from the truth in terms of what employers value. If I complete a certificate in welding at my local community college and pass the accreditation examination administered by the American Welding Society, I can likely go to work right away for $16/hour or more. 

Yet that certificate doesn’t count as course work toward any sort of traditional college degree. That seems like a missed opportunity when your demonstrated knowledge, skills, and abilities have high monetary value in the labor market. A traditional college degree should not be the only measure of personal fulfillment and success. It’s time for change in the way we assess learning and skills.


Thomas Orr, Senior Program Officer
Thomas Orr is a Senior Program Officer at the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, where he manages workforce development programs in the Indianapolis office. He formerly served as the COO of the Indianapolis Private Industry Council (aka EmployIndy). He is the co-founder of RecycleForce, a social enterprise employing former offenders in electronic recycling.