Measuring Quality

This issue of The Job looks at how Minnesota is setting the gold standard for defining quality, as states seek to collect more and better data on workforce education programs. Also, many medical assisting certificate programs will fail the new gainful-employment rule. What’s the solution for this low-paying profession?

Tracking Results in Minnesota

As more state money flows toward nondegree and short-term credentials, several states are bulking up their data-collection systems and trying to define what a good program looks like. And few, if any, are farther ahead in that work than Minnesota.

The state is one of five to collaborate with the National Skills Coalition and the Education Strategy Group, with support from the Lumina Foundation, to develop policies around a definition of quality for nondegree credentials, with an eye toward equity for learners and boosting states’ capacity for tracking outcomes.

“There’s always this question of what is quality, and when does the state step in?” says Meredith Fergus, director of research at Minnesota’s Office of Higher Education.

A starting point for the state was the 2015 target set by its legislature to increase the number of prime working-age Minnesotans who hold a postsecondary certificate or degree to 70% over the next decade. That effort followed broader aspirations from Lumina and the Obama administration.

As work on various attainment goals unfolded, questions of how to account for certificates and growing numbers of alternative credentials, like industry certifications or digital badges, helped lead to projects to create a transparent common language on credentials.

At the same time, policymakers increasingly have focused on the ROI of credentials, for students and taxpayers, as the reform movement in postsecondary education has evolved to prioritize economic mobility, as well as college access and completion.

Good outcomes data is rare for noncredit workforce programs, as briefs from both the Brookings Institution and New America noted this week.

Minnesota offers robust financial aid for workforce training as well as traditional degrees, with a philosophy of trying to fill financial gaps for lower-income students. But Fergus says tracking outcomes for a four-year degree typically should occur over a longer horizon than for a 16-week certificate.

The state looks at wages for graduates of degree programs five, eight, and 10 years after completion. For short-term credentials, however, the key questions are about quick access to jobs, some of which don’t pay particularly well, and whether graduates have a career path to a better-paying role.

“If they’re an early childcare worker, can they move up?” says Fergus.

The Gold Standard

In order to measure quality for nondegree workforce training, Minnesota first needed to be able to set baselines.

“The goal was to use existing data as much as possible,” Fergus says.

Minnesota also looked to see what’s working well elsewhere, she says, like Missouri’s recent project to recognize industry credentials. “We’re going to rely on what other states have done.”

Fergus says the state features plenty of barriers to entry for small training providers. They want to invite in more, but not “fly-by-night” operators, she says. State financial aid could be used to help students with start-up costs for registered apprenticeships, for example, or short-term programs for commercial truck drivers or welders.

“We’re going to see what’s out there. We’re not going to limit it,” says Fergus. “What is the quality standard going to be for those new providers?”

To try to answer that question, Minnesota requires a report on participant outcomes for workforce programs that receive state money. Program data is linked to administrative wage records to produce employment, wage, and industry outcomes. They include job-retention rates for students, even if they didn’t complete the training. And the data is disaggregated by race, ethnicity, gender, geography, age, education, and housing status.

“We’ve tested our system,” Fergus says. “The next step is implementation.”

The state now is the gold standard for publicly available information on nondegree programs, with what likely is the nation’s most robust quality framework, says Jeannine LaPrad, managing director for policy and research at the National Skills Coalition. The group plans to release reports in coming months on work by Minnesota and other states to measure job and credential quality.

Beyond its efforts to refine an already strong data infrastructure, LaPrad says Minnesota aligned that information with its policy priorities toward nondegree credentials, to get a better understanding of the implications of funneling more state money toward those programs.

The Kicker: “What they’ve done is doable by other states,” she says. “There’s not a lot of magic here.”

Wage Floor for Medical Assistants

The U.S. Department of Education last week released its proposal for a gainful-employment rule, which would apply to for-profit college programs and nondegree certificates offered by public and private colleges.

In addition to a debt-to-earnings metric, the new version of gainful employment includes a wage threshold requiring graduates of programs to earn a median wage that tops that of high school graduates in their state—roughly $26K nationally, with variation by state. The thinking behind the new measure is that the federal government shouldn’t subsidize credentials that leave graduates no better off than if they hadn’t attended college.

Various decisions loom for the department, including where exactly to set the high school wage floor. But nondegree programs in some fields would struggle broadly as the rule is currently written, particularly at for-profits, including cosmetology and medical assisting.

Roughly 60% of undergraduate certificate programs in medical assisting would fail the rule, mostly because of low earnings, estimates Preston Cooper, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity. Cooper points to the growing labor market demand for medical assistants, and says he’s found that most medical assistant programs provide a real—if limited—financial return.

“It’s important to ensure that accountability only targets programs that are leaving students worse off financially,” he says.

Cooper proposes reducing the wage threshold by 15%. “Most medical assistant programs with positive financial value would then pass the rule,” he says, “but programs that are leaving students truly worse off would still fail.”

The Texas-based College of Healthcare Professions produces more graduates in allied health than any other provider in the state.

“Medical assistants are absolutely critical to access to healthcare and quality of healthcare,” says Eric Bing, CHCP’s president, adding that these workers staff community health centers, urgent care facilities, imaging centers, genetics labs, and organ donor facilities, as well as hospitals. “Medical assisting helps the whole thing flow.”

A 2021 analysis of the for-profit college’s outcomes, conducted by researchers at Rice University, underscores the extreme poverty many CHCP students are experiencing when they first enroll.

The average annual income of Hispanic students who attended certificate programs at the college was $8,611 before they started and $26,090 after their first job placement. The wage bump was bigger for women, who more than tripled their earnings. The average salary of graduates of CHCP’s medical assistant certificate program was roughly $25,500, which likely has risen since the Rice review was conducted.

Helping professions that typically don’t pay well, such as medical assisting, early childcare, and home health and personal care aides, pose a moral dilemma for educators and policymakers. Society needs those roles filled, but encouraging students to take on debt to pursue credentials for a field where they may remain under the poverty line doesn’t seem like a good solution.

“There’s no question that many professions that are really important, including this one, are underpaid,” says Kyle Southern, associate vice president for higher education quality at the Institute for College Access & Success. “And colleges can’t do much about that.”

However, the for-profit programs that produce the bulk of certificates in medical assisting tend to be more expensive than those at community colleges. Southern crunched the numbers and found a median debt load of $17,150 for graduates of medical assistant certificate programs that would fail under gainful employment, compared to $5,758 across all programs.

“That’s the real problem,” he says.

TICAS also says 17% of all medical assisting certificate programs would fail gainful employment, compared to the 60% figure from Cooper, when including programs with small enrollments that wouldn’t be covered by the rule. The feds can steer students to more affordable programs, Southern says, adding that the median debt for a student who attended a medical assisting program at a public institution is $2,801.

As far as I can tell, many tough questions remain unresolved for the medical assisting field:

  • Why are for-profits overrepresented in the certificate market for medical assistants?
  • If many for-profit certificate programs get poofed in gainful employment’s wake, and if Southern is right that community colleges offer a better deal, will that sector pick up the slack?
  • How can our healthcare system pay medical assistants a living wage?

Please send your thoughts my way.

Open Tabs

Enrollment Numbers
U.S. undergraduate enrollment was essentially flat this spring, with a slight uptick in the community college sector, according to final numbers from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. The growth at two-year colleges—which have seen steep declines in recent years—came entirely from students who were outside associate degree programs, including certificates and dual-enrolled high school students. The final spring enrollment is somewhat lower than earlier estimates.

Skills-Based Hiring
A new executive order from Mike DeWine, Ohio’s Republican governor, calls for a comprehensive review of degree requirements for jobs in state government and for the development of a statewide policy on skills-based hiring. The order notes that the state employs slightly more employees without a degree than those who hold one, pointing to Ohio’s previous efforts to encourage skills-based hiring.

Nine states have made announcements about a significant first step toward skills-based hiring in government, including Colorado, Maryland, Utah, Pennsylvania, Alaska, North Carolina, New Jersey, South Dakota, and Ohio, writes Amanda Winters of the National Governors Association. The group’s bipartisan leaders recently urged their fellow governors to take action on skills-based hiring for state government jobs.

Graduate Credentials
The unemployment rate for Black workers hit a record low of 4.7% in April. And the 1.1M increase in jobs held by Black Americans since before the pandemic accounts for nearly half of the total U.S. gain during that time, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal. Many Black workers have moved into higher-paying occupations, which demand more skills and tend to offer better long-term stability.

Income Sharing
The U.S. public workforce system has long left behind young Americans (ages 16 to 24) who have relatively high unemployment rates, according to a brief from the Center for Law and Social Policy. The group calls for a national subsidized employment program aimed at millions of young people who are disconnected from both education and jobs, arguing that youth voices should be centered in developing such a program.

Prior Learning
Delaware has rolled out a statewide framework for awarding credit for prior learning, including college-level knowledge, skills, and competencies learned on the job. The framework calls for institutions to share information about CPL with students as part of the advising process, to limit fees for assessing prior learning, and to ensure that the credits apply to degree requirements whenever possible. The state’s colleges and universities aren’t mandated to follow the framework, but most have signed on.

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—Paul Fain

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