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Will ‘Apprenticeship Degrees’ Come to America?

The emergence of prestigious “degree apprenticeships” in the United Kingdom has implications for the future of higher ed in the U.S., Joe E. Ross writes.

By Joe E. Ross, Originally published on July 25, 2023 on Inside Higher Ed

Among high school seniors, a privileged few get to pick between elite, world-renowned colleges like Columbia, Duke, Harvard, MIT, Northwestern, Stanford, Wellesley and Yale. What if they could pick Goldman Sachs?

Some now can. Dozens of famous employers—including investment bank Goldman Sachs and other luminaries like Deloitte, GE, IBM, JPMorgan, Nestlé, UBS and Rolls-Royce—have begun to offer a four-year paid “apprenticeship” that leads to a debt-free bachelor’s degree. What’s the catch? Well, to apply for the Goldman Sachs gig and others like it, you need to be in the United Kingdom. Here in the United States, the apprenticeship-to-degree model is only beginning to emerge. If the idea takes off, it could be a long-term solution to the $1.7 trillion student debt crisis and restore lagging faith in American higher education.

How does it work? Imagine a job—a paid job—that turns into a degree. Applicants apply to the employer. The diploma is conferred by a collaborating university. But the action happens outside the ivory tower. Much of the learning comes from on-the-job work. The rest comes from job-relevant classes typically held outside working hours. Tuition is largely paid for as part of the learner’s compensation. No student loans.

Similar apprenticeship-to-degree programs exist in other countries, notably including Germany, where in the early 1970s companies such as Bosch and Daimler-Benz led the launch of the Berufsakademie (or “working academy”), which is now a job-embedded public university boasting 34,000 students and 9,000 participating employers.

Early adopters in the U.S. are not automobile manufacturers but state education agencies and K-12 school districts seeking to address the teacher shortage. Last year, Tennessee was the first state to launch a federally registered teacher apprenticeship program, which provides U.S. Department of Labor funding for school staff (like classroom aides and bus drivers) and others to earn college credit while working as apprentice teachers.

Even in states without a federally registered apprenticeship program, the teacher shortage is causing school districts to get into action. At Reach University, where I serve as president, we’ve teamed with 47 rural Louisiana parishes to enroll school employees in a job-embedded degree program through which they earn teacher licensure and a B.A. for just $1,800 in tuition.

At Reach, we now offer apprenticeship-based bachelor’s degree programs specifically for school employees in Alabama, Arkansas and California, in addition to Louisiana. Launched in fall 2020, our fully job-embedded programs exclusively serve aspiring teachers. Still, when describing our approach, I nearly always get the same question: Could this idea expand in the U.S. to fields outside of teacher preparation?

I think the answer is yes. Just look at what’s happening in the U.K. More than 100 universities now offer so-called degree apprenticeships in fields ranging from finance to health care, and more than 40,000 new students enroll each year. Robert Halfon, the U.K. minister for higher education and skills, likes to say that “degree” and “apprenticeship” are his two favorite words.

The ordering of those words—“degree” before “apprenticeship”—reflects the complexity of the apprenticeship system in the U.K., where the degree apprenticeship is the pinnacle of a multilevel system that also includes the intermediate apprenticeship and advanced apprenticeship. This nomenclature does not translate on our side of the Atlantic. It makes more sense to refer to the American version as an apprenticeship degree. After all, amid skyrocketing student debt, it’s not the apprenticeship that needs to be modified. It’s the degree.

The emergence in the U.K. of a debt-free, job-embedded degree has three notable implications for the future of American higher education.

For starters, we should be skeptical of narratives that describe the apprenticeship as a mere alternative to college. This is a false binary. An apprenticeship that intentionally leads to a degree provides both near-term job skills and long-term upward mobility.

In the U.K., there’s already a university president—or vice chancellor, as the role is called there—who got her start in an apprenticeship-to-degree program. And in Germany, at least one study of the Berufsakademie has found that its graduates earn more and ascend more quickly up the corporate ladder than their peers who went to traditional universities. Second, imagine the future of college as the future of work: the workplace becomes a campus. Colleagues become classmates. Classes may be online, but learners are not remote. This would be a big change for higher education. To conflate the apprenticeship degree with an online degree or an executive degree would be like mistaking Superman for a bird or a plane.

Finally, when it comes to the nation’s seemingly intractable student loan crisis, the debt-free apprenticeship degree could save the day. But this will only happen if job-embedded higher education goes mainstream, drawing the imagination of learners across all income levels. Enrique Peñalosa, a former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, has been quoted describing this dynamic in the context of urban policy: “The sign of an advanced society is not where the poor have cars, it’s where even the rich use public transportation.”

Similarly, we’ll know the apprenticeship degree is changing the landscape of opportunity in America when rich and poor alike aspire to a job that will lead to a good degree. Not the other way around.

Joe E. Ross is president of Reach University. Previously he was president of the California County Boards of Education association.

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