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How the pandemic is propelling demand for short-term college programs

It’s been a brutal academic year for higher education, with enrollment down in the fall more than 560,000 undergraduate students compared to 2019. But there has been at least one area of growth at many schools: short-term programs that help students gain new skills for the workforce quickly. Hari Sreenivasan reports as part of our ongoing series, “Rethinking College.”

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    One area hit by COVID is higher education.

    According to our partners at USAFacts, 36 percent of households canceled plans for higher education due to the pandemic as of last month.

    But there's one area of growth, short-term programs to develop skills for the work force quickly.

    Hari Sreenivasan reports in this last chapter of our series Rethinking College.

  • Amina Abdoulaye:

    When I was in Africa, I was going to college, and the terrorists attacked my country. And they destroyed everything.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    When Amina Abdoulaye came to study in the U.S. from the West African nation of Niger, she had a big goal, become a computer scientist, a Ph.D., no less. Only problem?

  • Amina Abdoulaye:

    I didn't know anything about computers. I couldn't even use Microsoft, the basics that even middle school people use to submit homework.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    A big obstacle, especially since she also didn't speak English.

    But Amina has always had a strategy for getting what she wants. She takes things one step at a time.

  • Amina Abdoulaye:

    This year, I will learn English. Next year, I will do my GED. Next year, I will start college.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    In just four years, Abdoulaye is already working here, Wall Street. She's enrolled in a program called Year Up, and interning at the financial information firm S&P Global, all that without a single day of college.

    Short-term credentials have been around for decades. But in this economic environment, with skyrocketing traditional college costs now beyond the reach of many, they're having a moment.

    In just a few months, Abdoulaye began working towards a certificate in U.X., or user experience, design. That certificate can be applied toward a degree in the future. But, in the meantime, it will help her escape minimum wage jobs.

  • Amina Abdoulaye:

    And actually allow me to even have a good job, and then I can pay for more education to get more skills done. If only I started with college, I would have to wait four years to even have entry-level job in corporate America.

  • Gerald Chertavian:

    She needs to have economic stability, right?

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    That's why Gerald Chertavian, the founder and CEO of Year Up, made short-term credentials a key part of his program to give low-income young people a leg up in the job market.

    As the U.S. economy looks beyond the pandemic, he says, students like Abdoulaye will be desperately needed to fix a fundamental supply and demand problem in the U.S.

  • Gerald Chertavian:

    On the supply side, we have five million young adults who are out of school, out of work, and don't have more than a high school degree. And on the demand side, we have literally millions of jobs for, let's say technical jobs, jobs that are — require a certain level of skills, that are going unfulfilled, and that will get worse, rather than better, as we recover from the pandemic.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The pandemic destroyed millions of American jobs for all ages.

    A third of adults say that, if they lost their job, they would need more education to get a new one. And given that lower-income workers have been hit the hardest, they will need to get them quickly, cheaply, and in skills tied directly to available jobs.

    Schools like Columbus State Community College had been working to ramp up shorter-term credential programs for years. Then came COVID-19.

    Cheryl Hay is Columbus State's executive director of the Office of Talent Strategy.

  • Cheryl Hay:

    It's going to become a cornerstone for us, because it's about equity and opportunity.

    Not everyone can stop what they're doing to go to class full time during the day. And, so, shorter programming that kind of helps them stair-step a little at a time is where we really meet the need.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    About 36 million people have completed some college coursework, but didn't finish, often leaving their efforts completely unrecognized once they drop out.

    But now even big tech wants to drive part of the solution.

  • Patrica Ramos:

    We actually co-created the certificate with Amazon.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    After just four classes at Santa Monica College, a student like Sofia Baca can earn an industry-recognized certificate in cloud computing skills.

  • Sofia Baca:

    Even if I'm not completed with the four classes, I know that there are employers who are willing to hire me as I'm finishing the program.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Those jobs often come with paychecks between $50,000 and $80,000 per year.

    Patricia Ramos is the school's dean of work force and economic development. She says too few un- or under-employed workers realize how quickly they can retrain in today's high-tech job landscape.

  • Patrica Ramos:

    Not everybody is going to need bachelor's degrees and master's degree and graduate degrees. I think that industries like tech are changing so quickly, right? They say every six months, and now it's even faster.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Google recently developed its own short-term career certificates they say will be viewed internally, as the equivalent of a four-year degree.

    So, could short-term credentials really replace college?

    For some perspective, I called Jane Oates, the president of WorkingNation and a former Obama administration official in the Department of Labor.

  • Jane Oates:

    If people get the right ones, if they get valuable industry-recognized credentials, they can get a job pretty quickly.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    How does that change the landscape when it comes to people starting to see their neighbor saying, wait a minute, I went to school for four years, and this person over here just went for six months, and we're kind of at the same job?

  • Jane Oates:

    Well, I think the pandemic could set post-secondary education on its ear, because people are really going to look at, is it worth it for me to go for a two-year or a four-year degree, or do these quick credentials that are industry-recognized, get me a quicker bang for my buck?

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    But, she warns, there are thousands of certificates out there. Not all were created equal.

  • Jane Oates:

    People have been scammed in the past. So, people should be very careful when they're selecting a program. Make sure that that credential is recognized by other employers.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Amina Abdoulaye will soon graduate the Year Up program and is already working towards two certificates.

  • Amina Abdoulaye:

    Every day, I said, I deserve to work in corporate America, I deserve to have skills, I deserve to add value, I deserve to do something better for my life.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    She will keep repeating that, she says, one credential at a time, until she makes it.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Hari Sreenivasan in New York.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Such an important series. Thank you.

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