Short-Term Training Programs Are Increasingly Popular, but Do They Work?

Career and technical education (CTE) and workforce development have seen a surge in the popularity of short-term training programs that purport to give community college students skills highly valued in the labor market that will help them get jobs quickly. These programs, which are often just referred to as CTE programs, actually vary greatly: Some of them last a few days, some a few weeks, and some a few years. In some, students earn college credit, some offer no credit, and many result in industry-recognized credentials or licenses.

MDRC’s Center for Effective Career and Technical Education spoke with Di Xu, associate professor at the School of Education at the University of California, Irvine, to learn from her research on nondegree credentials.

MDRC: What short-term certificates are available to students right now? And how would you characterize the growing popularity of noncredit programs?

Di Xu: There are substantial variations in terms of short-term credentials. We are seeing increasing reliance on and offering of noncredit programs. There are certificates offered by colleges, noncredit programs offered by employers, and programs that yield industry-recognized credentials. So far, we have limited knowledge about these programs for two reasons: In most states, noncredit students are not part of the state-level, system-wide data-collection effort. Even though there are a lot of students enrolled in the sector, we have limited knowledge about who they are, what types of programs they’re enrolled in, and what their typical outcomes are. The second reason is, there are many variations across states, which makes it difficult to describe systematically the options students have.

MDRC: What do we know currently about the success of short-term certificate programs, if anything?

Di Xu: We have growing evidence on the labor market benefits of credit-bearing, short-term certificates. In multiple states, including Virginia, North Carolina, California, and many others, researchers have identified nontrivial economic benefits to participating in these programs.

However, these studies also found substantial variations across fields of study, which seem to be partly the result of the average earnings of the industries associated with those fields of study. For example, health-related fields and manufacturing programs are found to be associated with higher labor market returns in a few states, which might be partly due to the higher average earnings in the industries of health care and manufacturing.

However, the research has also found that for many individuals, the function of these programs seems to be to increase their chances of landing a job or help them switch to a new industry, rather than to bump up their earnings within their current industry. In some of my analyses, we found that childcare programs enroll a lot of individuals who used to work in the manufacturing sector. Many of them might have been displaced due to closing factories. If we only look at their earnings trajectories, the benefits for individuals who transition using these programs are likely to be masked due to the differences in average earnings between industries. You observe lower earnings because they enter an industry that has lower average earnings but may offer other benefits, such as increased probability of employment, stability, or work satisfaction. Such benefits may be particularly meaningful during an economic recession, when many individuals face the potential of layoffs in unstable industries. This possibility highlights the importance of including additional measures beyond earnings records to evaluate the benefits of certificate programs.

MDRC: What evidence do we have about noncredit training? 

Di Xu: For the noncredit sector, the evidence is much more limited because noncredit students or programs are typically not included in state and national postsecondary data sets. Among states that collect information from some noncredit programs, existing evidence suggests that a large proportion of the people who enroll in these programs are adult learners, individuals who have had some working experiences, and individuals who are more likely to come from low-income backgrounds. Many of these programs are fairly short, some including just one course that runs a couple of weeks. Student outcomes vary across studies, primarily because the types of noncredit programs vary substantially across states and also across programs within the state.

Some people have theorized that noncredit programs could serve as a bridge to credit-bearing programs. In some of my studies, we have found that a nontrivial proportion of noncredit students do indeed indicate an interest in transitioning to credit-bearing programs when they first enroll in noncredit programs. However, only a tiny proportion of those students ever enroll in a credit-bearing program. In fact, many students enroll in noncredit programs only for a brief time, and never complete the program or receive any credential. What can explain these suboptimal outcomes?

There is also limited evidence on the labor market benefits of these programs. If I participate in one or two noncredit classes, does it really boost my labor market performance? Does it really help me find a job?

My conversations with state partners indicate that they are interested in knowing the challenges noncredit students face, why they leave programs, and what institutional or program-level factors contribute to their educational and labor market outcomes. The limited information about noncredit programs has imposed significant barriers to effective workforce-development policy.

MDRC: Have you seen any major weaknesses of these short-term training programs, be they credit or noncredit?

Di Xu: We definitely need more research to answer this question. But one obvious challenge for students enrolled in a noncredit training program is the lack of financial support. Access to Pell Grants currently requires students to enroll in certain credit-bearing programs. In the noncredit sector, students have much less access to financial aid. Nationally, there have been discussions regarding further expanding Pell Grants to support students enrolled in those short-term programs. Understanding what role financial aid plays in those short-term programs would be important for those policy discussions and decisions. How does financial support influence student program completion, as well as subsequent academic and labor market outcomes?

Related to financial support would be the advising services provided to students, including academic advising, career counseling, and advising on transitioning to credit-bearing programs. The advising services in noncredit programs have limited funding from the state. So institutions probably will not be able to offer as much advising for nonacademic programs as they can for credit-bearing programs. But we know from both research and practitioners’ accounts that college advising is important for students. Without those services, or if the services or support are limited, students are likely to struggle more in making progress in those programs.