Workforce IT program: A model for debt-free college education

Workforce Opportunity Services' innovative IT training program for underprivileged youth lets qualified students get a college education debt-free. But why limit the idea to the economically disadvantaged? WOS' approach could serve as a model for restructuring higher education by improving graduates' marketability and helping students and families reduce their college loan obligations.

WOS founder Art Langer developed the program, which trains inner-city high school graduates for hard-to-fill IT jobs. The nonprofit organization recruits students, matches them up with jobs, mentors them on the job, and lets them work their way through college in five to six years. They graduate with a certificate initially and can go on to attain their associates and then their bachelor's degree, ending up with a job -- and no debt.

During my recent interview with Dr. Langer, who is also professor at Columbia University, I was struck by the fact that it's not just the working poor who can't afford college these days.

So I asked Langer whether he felt the program could be a model for how the nation's colleges and universities might restructure the college experience for the middle class. His response:

"The system that we have just doesn't work for a large portion of our population anymore. Going away to four years of college is no longer going to be a solution. They can't afford it, there's too much debt, and they're getting out seeking jobs that aren't there. Universities have to not only become more competitive, but offer lower prices and different types of relationships. Our model is one of the first to do that."

College today: A backwards model

Compare what WOS is doing with the traditional program that my daughter is pursuing toward an occupational therapy degree. The five-year program lets her attain her bachelor's and masters degrees in five years versus six -- good so far, in that it saves a full year of graduate tuition (unfortunately, there has been a movement in the profession to inflate requirements over time, and most recently for some schools to go back to the six-year model).

The problem is that these programs front-load the curriculum with liberal arts requirements in the initial years while pushing most of the real vocational training into years four and five. By the time a student gets to the point where she is learning the practical skills for the career she desires, she and her family will have paid three years of college expenses. Those out of pocket costs could exceed $75,000.

For most families that represents a considerable reduction in wealth -- and probably the assumption of substantial debt for the student and quite possibly the parents as well. That's a lot of money to spend just to get to the point where you can start to really dig in and understand the discipline you think you want to pursue.

Furthermore, real experiential learning in the form of internships -- a critical component in helping students understand whether a career is really for them -- isn't part of the program until the fifth year.

Langer's approach: Skills first

Under Langer's model this program would be turned upside down. The accepted student would be matched up with a potential employer before the program began. She would go through an intensive basic skills training period and start working part time within a few months. She would then continue on to pass the OT assistant certification exam, attaining an associates degree, and then finally graduate with a bachelor's/masters of science degree before taking the test for her full OT certification.

In this way she would know early on whether the career was the right path for her, and she could pay for classes as she took them. Indeed, budget-savvy students can follow this track today by enrolling in a community college for the associates-level certification, then matriculate into a 3-year program at a state school to finish up. What you can't get today is a good paying job in your desired field up front, as WOS students do.

By following this path, the student could potentially graduate debt free, or at least with considerably less debt than with a traditional college experience.

Contrast that with another student we know who recently graduated from a similar program with $100,000 in student loans. At 8% interest that's a loan payment of $1,213 a month for 10 years, which is the maximum term for a federal loan.

Taken as a whole, these kinds of costs aren't just the students' problem. Ask yourself what happens to a U.S. economy in which 70% of GDP is dependent on consumer spending if every student graduates with $100,000 in debt? You probably won't see them lining up to buy new homes, new cars or a fancy big-screen TV.

Tip of the iceberg

There are many other issues with higher education costs, of course. The classroom lecture model is inefficient and labor intensive, and experiential learning is often simply an add-on, if it is available at all. Pricing and financial aid processes are opaque, and too often simply "award" the student the right to take out government-backed loans.

Finally, there's no return on investment calculation for an expense that can cost the student and family more than a home mortgage, and the quality of the end product is difficult to measure.

With an occupational therapy major at least we had some metrics to work with. The total out of pocket cost for the schools to which our daughter applied, after adjusting for inflation, ranged from $113,000 to $255,000. But it was the lowest cost school that offered the highest pass rate on the OTC certification exam.

As college costs continue to spiral upward at twice the rate of inflation, something needs to give. No doubt a program like this, which matches students with potential employers up front and lets them work part-time while enrolled in a skills-first college program, would be attractive to many families.

Robert L. Mitchell is a national correspondent for Computerworld. Follow him on Twitter at  twitter.com/rmitch, or e-mail him at rmitchell@computerworld.com.

See more by Robert L. Mitchell on Computerworld.com.

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