Apprenticeships Are Growing into Degrees

Reach University wants to help other colleges team up with employers on apprenticeship degrees. Will the promising earn-and-learn model spread?

Apprenticeship degrees are becoming a hot concept in the U.S., with growing interest from states and employers across industries. The combination of a registered apprenticeship and a college degree for workers in high-demand fields seems like an obvious win.

Yet these programs remain rare—as do apprenticeships more broadly, particularly compared to the rest of the world. In an attempt to accelerate their adoption, Reach University, an upstart provider, this week is sharing its playbook for creating apprenticeship degrees.

“The degree is not dead. This is a profoundly pro–higher education model,” says Joe Ross, the university’s president. “The employers are here for it.”

Reach is accredited by the WASC Senior College and University Commission. The nonprofit university has so far focused on teacher education. It offers job-embedded learning, with apprenticeships typically aimed at school employees who aren’t teachers. The job leads to a degree in this approach, not the other way around.

Tuition is listed at just over $12K. However, after grants and institutional scholarships, the out-of-pocket contribution for all full-time undergraduates is $900 per year, Ross says, with no student debt.

Since it began offering apprenticeship degrees less than four years ago, Reach has grown quickly and now operates statewide in California, Alabama, Arkansas, and Louisiana. It currently enrolls 1,825 candidates across 250+ rural, low-income, and urban school districts. The university’s footprint is the biggest by far in Louisiana, with more than 1,100 apprentices/students—a number that slightly tops the state’s teacher shortage.

In Arkansas, Reach enrolls 300 candidates across 107 high-need K-12 school districts.

“It attracts a different talent pool,” says Mike Rogers, the state’s first-ever chief workforce officer. “People who can’t put their lives on hold for a year or four years.”

Yet despite Reach’s early success and growing interest in the model, the university might be the only U.S. institution to offer registered apprenticeship degrees. (Let me know if I’m missing others?)

“This is radical change,” says Ross. “It affects the mindsets of so many stakeholders in the system.”

Getting degree apprenticeships up and running—in a high-quality, scalable way—requires buy-in from employers, accreditors, colleges, and government agencies. “Each of the players are depending on each other,” says Ross, while “rethinking everything” they’re doing.

Sharing the blueprint: The university hopes its newly announced National Center for the Apprenticeship Degree will help seed the ground for others and create the widespread and systemic adoption of apprenticeship degree paths. The center will serve as an intermediary, with a plan to collaborate with like-minded universities, industry partners, state systems, and local leaders.

Ross says NCAD will provide support so local partners can take the model and run with it. “We also want it adopted in a way that’s not a make-believe apprenticeship,” he says, stressing that the programs should not be reduced to an internship, co-op, or clinical experience.

The center seeks to set the standard for a quality approach with these tenets:

  • The job comes first and is typically entry-level, frontline work.
  • The workplace becomes the learning place, with half of the academic credit for a degree coming from on-the-job training.
  • The job is degree conferring and is provided by an accredited college with learning that occurs online or on nights and weekends.
  • The learner earns a wage while they learn, gain experience, and pursue a degree.

“We expect our graduates not just to be job ready, but also future ready,” Ross says.

The center has lined up a broad group of partners for its launch, including employers (KIPP Public Charter Schools), colleges and universities (Dallas College and Arizona State University), and policy groups (the National Governors Association).

The State Higher Education Executive Officers Association is part of the coalition. When asked why, John Lane, SHEEO’s vice president for academic affairs and equity initiatives, points to his organization’s annual survey, where economic and workforce development has been the top policy priority for the last two years.

More learn-and-earn opportunities are needed around the country, Lane says. And he says apprenticeship degrees can help drive more equitable representation in professions. Lane praises Reach for its engagement with colleges and other partners.

“They build wonderful relationships,” says Lane. “And relationships drive policy.”

Western Governors University, home to the nation’s largest teacher education school, has its eyes on apprenticeship degrees. The online, competency-based university currently enrolls 43K teachers across all 50 states, and 30% of those students are employed in school districts.

“We’re reimagining our teacher education model,” says Courtney Hills McBeth, WGU’s chief academic officer and provost, and “essentially taking the teacher apprenticeship model and embedding it in our curriculum.” 

The university has learned from Reach, which has been a great partner, she says.

WGU is particularly well suited to give this approach a whirl, with its focus on personalization and the thousands of school paraprofessionals it enrolls. The question is, will other colleges and universities follow suit?

The kicker: “If we can help more institutions move forward,” says Ross, “it will make this more of a no-brainer.”

Degree Apprenticeships Across Industries

Several other professions may be good options for apprenticeship degrees, particularly in healthcare. 

Siemens AG, the huge German tech conglomerate, is of course big on apprenticeships. But healthcare has been a challenging industry for the model, says Geoffrey Roche, director of workforce development in North America for Siemens Healthineers, the company’s healthcare and medical tech division.

“Many healthcare systems are early in their journey with apprenticeships,” he says.

Severe labor shortages in the industry, however, are adding plenty of urgency. Roche cites data showing that 18% of all imaging roles are vacant at U.S. hospitals—meaning unfilled jobs in radiology, mammography, sonography, and MRI tech. 

“Every single modality is in need of workforce,” says Roche. Meanwhile, the industry’s association estimates that 13K students were turned away by college programs last year due to faculty shortages or a lack of clinical placements. The workforce crisis is contributing to delays for patients in getting radiology appointments, Roche says, which has made it a top issue for governors and state legislatures.

Imaging careers tend to pay well, with a median annual wage of $68K for radiologic and MRI techs. But to get there, workers must first earn a two-year degree and get a certification. “Not everyone is in a position to do that while working,” Roche says.

Enter the apprenticeship degree, which Roche says is a “transformative model” and a natural fit for the industry given its focus on employer demand.

“It’s just a difference of learning on the job as opposed to learning in the classroom,” he says.

For an apprenticeship degree program, Reach’s Ross says student admissions becomes an employer partnership or business development function, which requires a high touch with companies. “Employers bring students to the university, not vice versa,” he says.

View from Arkansas: Rogers is leading his state’s just-released workforce strategy. He says apprenticeship degrees could work for healthcare, including for nursing. Other careers where he says this approach shows potential include cybersecurity, data analysis, business administration, industrial maintenance, prison guards, surveying, lithium production, and more.

“I can’t think of an hourly profession that couldn’t be an apprenticeship,” says Rogers.

Part of the draw of an apprenticeship degree, he says, is that it gives people an on-ramp for a career without having to leave their jobs.

“The apprenticeship degree needs to be part of an à la carte that leads to an entrée,” Rogers says. “We need to be able to customize.”

Lacking awareness and exposure pose a challenge for employers that might otherwise take the leap, he says. The new center from Reach could help there, and the state’s department of education is part of NCAD’s coalition.

Likewise, Roche says the accreditation and licensing sides of apprenticeship programs need to be in sync. That’s particularly true in healthcare, he says, where it’s crucial to have 100% certainty that the learning in an apprenticeship is the same as what’s required in a more traditional college path.

But the time is right, he says. Siemens Healthineers has many partners at the table that want to think differently about career preparation.

“It’s the exact model that’s going to create more career mobility and potentially more retention” for workers, says Roche. “We are really at the cusp of a significant opportunity in healthcare.”

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