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Liberal arts colleges look to career and tech education to bolster enrollment

Kirk Carapezza Feb 2, 2021
Heard on:
Claudia Cabrera, who is taking advanced manufacturing courses at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts, says someday she wants to help make robots. Meredith Nierman

Liberal arts colleges look to career and tech education to bolster enrollment

Kirk Carapezza Feb 2, 2021
Heard on:
Claudia Cabrera, who is taking advanced manufacturing courses at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts, says someday she wants to help make robots. Meredith Nierman

Just as COVID-19 hit the region in March, Claudia Cabrera was accepted into a new advanced manufacturing certificate program at Stonehill College, a four-year liberal arts school south of Boston.

“I had my GED [certificate] for about a year, and I didn’t really know where I wanted to go with my career, my education,” Cabrera said. “I felt like I wasn’t going to be able to go back to school because I was a young mom.”

The 24-year-old mother of twins was also homeless. After being exposed to someone with COVID-19, she tried to isolate her family for two weeks.

“I was living in a shelter with 20 other families,” she recalled. “I tried so hard to just be away from everyone, and I couldn’t go to my family’s house because I couldn’t expose them to it. I just needed to get out of there.”

While she was in the shelter, Cabrera saw Stonehill’s certificate program as an opportunity to earn a living wage as a technician.

“I’m a hands-on learner,” she said. “I don’t really understand until I do it for myself.”

Between 2019 and 2037, the number of new high school graduates in New England is expected to shrink by nearly 13%, and that spells problems for small colleges like Stonehill — and for the region’s high-skills economy. Massachusetts alone is facing a major shortage of technicians

A handful of liberal arts schools have invested in career and technical certificate programs that cost students less and last just a few semesters. 

“These institutions are needing to enroll as many learners as they possibly can,” said Shalin Jyotishi, a senior policy analyst at the think tank New America.

He recommends all kinds of colleges adopt short-term, non-degree programs as the traditional college-going demographic shrinks.

“In order to stay afloat — and hopefully expand — private liberal arts colleges will need to come up with new sorts of offerings that respond to the market demands,” he said, pointing to research that finds since March, Americans are increasingly interested in non-degree, certificate opportunities.

“Offering more short-term affordable programs will make you more attractive to a broader range of learners, whether they’re traditional college-age or adult learners,” he said.

In Paxton, Massachusetts, Anna Maria College is refocusing on the idea of “serving students who serve the community,” educating people who want to work in fire, policing and nursing. Clarke University, a liberal arts college in Dubuque, Iowa, this summer introduced a career and technical program — a series of self-paced online micro courses designed to provide professional development skills to working adults.

Stonehill now offers certificates that cost about $10,000, compared to the full cost of attendance that can run north of $65,000 a year, if you include the cost of room and board.

So, why did the college decide to partner with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Bridgewater State University to offer certificates in an obscure field like photonics, teaching students how to install light technology on tiny chips?

“I think it provides access to a different type of student that Stonehill has not catered to,” said Melissa Ratliff, Stonehill’s new dean of graduate admissions.

She said the college traditionally serves recent high school grads who live in dorms, so administrators were surprised by some of the older students’ needs.

“We had some students that didn’t have access to Wi-Fi, they didn’t have access to a reliable laptop,” she said, adding that some students also had transportation-related issues.

Stonehill secured funding from professional societies to loan students laptops and offset tuition costs. The college also helped Claudia Cabrera find an apartment that she could afford so she could leave the shelter.

Sitting inside her apartment, negotiating with her twins, Cabrera said she’s all caught up on her coursework now and expects to complete her advanced manufacturing courses later this year before entering the workforce.

“I think I want to work for the people who make robots,” Cabrera said, “with technology being such a big thing in the world right now, especially during COVID.”

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

What’s the outlook for vaccine supply?

Chief executives of America’s COVID-19 vaccine makers promised in congressional testimony to deliver the doses promised to the U.S. government by summer. The projections of confidence come after months of supply chain challenges and companies falling short of year-end projections for 2020. What changed? In part, drugmakers that normally compete are now actually helping one another. This has helped solve several supply chain issues, but not all of them.

How has the pandemic changed scientific research?

Over the past year, while some scientists turned their attention to COVID-19 and creating vaccines to fight it, most others had to pause their research — and re-imagine how to do it. Social distancing, limited lab capacity — “It’s less fun, I have to say. Like, for me the big part of the science is discussing the science with other people, getting excited about projects,” said Isabella Rauch, an immunologist at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. Funding is also a big question for many.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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