With rapid technological advances, the U.S. labor market exhibits a growing need for more frequent and ongoing skill development. Community college noncredit career and technical education (CTE) programs that allow students to complete workforce training and earn credentials play an essential role in providing workers with the skills they need to compete for jobs in high-demand fields. Yet, there is a dearth of research on these programs because noncredit students are typically not included in state and national postsecondary datasets. In this guest blog for CTE Month, researchers Di Xu, Benjamin Castleman, and Betsy Tessler discuss their IES-funded exploration study in which they build on a long-standing research partnership with the Virginia Community College System and leverage a variety of data sources to investigate the Commonwealth’s FastForward programs. These programs are noncredit CTE programs designed to lead to an industry-recognized credential in one of several high-demand fields identified by the Virginia Workforce Board.
In response to the increasing demand for skilled workers in the Commonwealth, the Virginia General Assembly passed House Bill 66 in 2016 to establish the New Economy Workforce Credential Grant Program (WCG) with the goal of providing a pay-for-performance model for funding noncredit training. The WCG specifically funds FastForward programs that lead to an industry-recognized credential in a high-demand field in the Commonwealth. Under this model, funding is shared between the state, students, and training institutions based on student performance, with the goal of ensuring workforce training is affordable for Virginia residents. An important implication of WCG is that it led to systematic, statewide collection of student-level data on FastForward program enrollment, program completion, industry credential attainment, and labor market performance. Drawing on these unique data, coupled with interviews with key stakeholders, we generated findings on the characteristics of FastForward programs, as well as the academic and labor market outcomes of students enrolled in these programs. We describe the preliminary descriptive findings below.
FastForward programs enroll a substantially different segment of the population from credit-bearing programs and offer a vital alternative route to skill development and workforce opportunities, especially for demographic groups often underrepresented in traditional higher education. FastForward programs in Virginia enroll a substantially higher share of Black students, male students, and older students than short-duration, credit-bearing programs at community colleges that typically require one year or less to complete. Focus groups conducted with FastForward students at six colleges indicate that the students were a mix of workers sent by their employers to learn specific new skills and students who signed up for a FastForward program on their own. Among the latter group were older career changers and recent high school graduates, many of whom had no prior college experience and were primarily interested in landing their first job in their chosen field. Moreover, 61% of FastForward participants have neither prior nor subsequent enrollment in credit-bearing programs, highlighting the program’s unique role in broadening access to postsecondary education and career pathways.
FastForward programs offer an alternative path for students who are unsuccessful in credit-bearing programs. The vast majority of students (78%) enrolled in only one FastForward program, with the average enrollment duration of 1.5 quarters, which is notably shorter than most traditional credit-bearing programs. While 36% have prior credit-bearing enrollment, fewer than 20% of these students earned a degree or certificate from it, and less than 12% of FastForward enrollees transitioned to credit-bearing training afterward. Interviews with administrators and staff indicated that while some colleges facilitate noncredit-to-credit pathways by granting credit for prior learning, others prioritize employment-focused training and support over stackable academic pathways due to students’ primary interest in seeking employment post-training.
FastForward programs have a remarkable completion rate and are related to high industry credential attainment rates. Over 90% of students complete their program, with two-thirds of students obtaining industry credentials. Student focus groups echoed this success. They praised the FastForward program and colleges for addressing both their tuition and non-tuition needs. Many students noted that they had not envisioned themselves as college students and credited program staff, financial aid, and institutional support with helping them to be successful.
Earning an industry credential through FastForward on average increases quarterly earnings by approximately $1,000. In addition, industry credentials also increase the probability of being employed by 2.4 percentage points on average. We find substantial heterogeneity in economic return across different fields of study, where the fields of transportation (for example, commercial driver’s license) and precision production (for example, gas metal arc welding) seem to be associated with particularly pronounced earnings premiums. Within programs, we do not observe significant heterogeneity in economic returns across student subgroups.
In view of the strong economic returns associated with earning an industry credential and the noticeable variation in credential attainment between training institutions and programs, our future exploration intends to unpack the sources of variation in program-institution credential attainment rates and to identify specific program-level factors that are within the control of an institution and which are associated with higher credential rates and lower equity gaps. Specifically, we will collect additional survey data from the top 10 most highly-enrolled programs at the Virginia Community College System (VCCS) that will provide more nuanced program-level information and identify which malleable program factors are predictive of higher credential attainment rates, better labor market outcomes, and smaller equity gaps associated with these outcomes.
Di Xu is an associate professor in the School of Education at UC, Irvine, and the faculty director of UCI’s Postsecondary Education Research & Implementation Institute.
Ben Castleman is the Newton and Rita Meyers Associate Professor in the Economics of Education at the University of Virginia.
Betsy Tessler is a senior associate at MDRC in the Economic Mobility, Housing, and Communities policy area.
Note: A team of researchers, including Kelli Bird, Sabrina Solanki, and Michael Cooper contributed jointly to the quantitative analyses of this project. The MDRC team, including Hannah Power, Kelsey Brown, and Mark van Dok, contributed to qualitative data collection and analysis. The research team is grateful to the Virginia Community College System (VCCS) for providing access to their high-quality data. Special thanks are extended to Catherine Finnegan and her team for their valuable guidance and support throughout our partnership.
This project was funded under the Postsecondary and Adult Education research topic; questions about it should be directed to program officer James Benson (James.Benson@ed.gov).
This blog was produced by Corinne Alfeld (Corinne.Alfeld@ed.gov), NCER program officer for the CTE research topic.