Apprenticeships Gaining a Stronger Foothold in Higher Education

Apprenticeships Gaining a Stronger Foothold in Higher Education
portrait of Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D.
By Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D.

Published on September 3, 2021

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American higher education has featured internships and co-op programs for decades. Apprenticeships offer many of the same benefits and can be an affordable avenue to degree credentials and career opportunities. Yet not as many students take advantage of this option.

Thanks to bipartisan political support and a steady flow of federal funds, the relationship between higher education and apprenticeships promises to grow stronger.

What Are Apprenticeships?

The practice of apprenticeships has been around for some time, to say the least. In the 18th century B.C., the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi — best known for its "eye for an eye" dictum — required artisans to teach the next generation their crafts. Paul Revere was an early American apprentice, studying the art of silversmithing with his father while, presumably, learning to ride horses.

Traditionally, apprenticeships have been associated with trade vocations such as carpenters, electricians, plumbers, masons, construction workers, and machinists. Today, you also can find apprentices in fields such as healthcare, information technology, cybersecurity, financial services, and graphic design.

An apprenticeship features hands-on learning under the supervision of a mentor, along with relevant technical or classroom instruction. These positions are paid, and apprentices earn increasingly higher wages as they progress in their programs.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, in 2020, there were more than 636,000 apprentices nationwide, with about 221,000 individuals entering the apprenticeship system that year. Over 3,100 registered apprenticeship programs were established in 2020, 73% more than in 2009.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, in 2020, there were more than 636,000 apprentices nationwide, with about 221,000 individuals entering the apprenticeship system that year.

Despite this growth, the overall numbers remain modest. Nationwide, apprentices constitute only 0.2% of the labor force.

The term "registered" refers to a program certified by the Department of Labor or a state apprenticeship agency. It's the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for such programs, a sort of accreditation recognizing a program's validity. Today's apprenticeship system was established in 1937 by the National Apprenticeship Act, also known as the Fitzgerald Act.

Data from 2017 showed that 92.7% of apprentices were men, which perhaps isn't surprising given the prevalence of males in the trade professions.

One study found that in fiscal year 2017, just over 16% of apprentices were Hispanic or Latino. Other findings showed that 10.7% of apprentices were Black, while some 63% identified as white.

It seems minorities are well-represented among the ranks of apprentices. An Aspen Institute report concludes that apprenticeships "hold the appeal and promise of improving workplace diversity and providing career pathways for low-income people."

What Are the Differences Between Apprenticeships, Internships, and Co-Ops?

These various forms of practical learning share common features, but differences do exist. Here's a quick breakdown of how they generally align and differ:




How Apprenticeships Intersect With Higher Education

Because apprenticeships include what's called "related technical instruction," the work experience often overlaps with higher education. The two forms of learning share a common goal — to prepare individuals for success in their careers.

Given the role of community colleges in addressing the needs of local economies, it's no surprise apprenticeship programs overlap significantly with this sector.

Community colleges deliver curricula around apprenticeships, work with local businesses to design academic programs, grant credits and credentials, and provide support services such as tutoring and counseling. They might also operate a Registered Apprenticeship Program, assuming responsibility for its administration.

"Apprenticeship is not an alternative to higher education," said Brent Parton, deputy director of the Center on Education and Skills with the Education Policy program at New America. "It's an alternative way through higher education."

In general, the apprentice route tends to be much cheaper than the traditional path to a degree.

Students can follow this path to a four-year degree. For example, at the University of Richmond, a designated provider of Virginia's registered apprenticeship program, students can earn a bachelor's degree in such fields as human resources management, information security, and paralegal studies.

How much students pay for these programs varies by state. In some cases, the cost to students is zero. Florida colleges are prohibited by state law from charging tuition or fees for the classroom component of their apprenticeship. In other instances, states offer colleges reimbursements to cover instructional costs. And in some states, students are left with the option of taking federal loans. Employers often absorb some apprenticeship costs as well.

In general, the apprentice route tends to be much cheaper than the traditional path to a degree. Yet New America's Michael Prebil believes it should be even more accessible.

"To attain their maximum potential for social benefit," he writes, "college-connected apprenticeships must provide a more affordable — and ideally tuition-free — pathway to a college degree."

Bipartisan Support for Apprentice Programs

Apprenticeships have enjoyed bipartisan support in Washington and at the state level, though there has been some political wrangling of late.

Both parties consider apprenticeship programs worthy of investment. Since 2016, some 30 states have passed 60 new apprenticeship laws. These have established new programs, authorized funding, ensured credit transferability, and promoted diversity, among other aims.

In 2014, President Barack Obama held the first White House Summit on American Apprenticeship, calling on Congress to create a $2 billion training fund to help states and regions double the number of apprentices over five years. While that effort fell short, in 2016 the Labor Department invested $90 million in ApprenticeshipsUSA to broaden opportunities, especially in high-tech industries.

President Donald Trump, no stranger to apprentices, signed an executive order in 2017 further expanding apprenticeships and increasing the $90 million to nearly $200 million a year. But the order also shifted oversight responsibility from the Labor Department to third parties, including trade groups, labor unions, and businesses. This deregulation resulted in what was termed an "industry-recognized" apprenticeship system.

The political ping-ponging continued last February, when President Joe Biden reversed the 2017 order, effectively scrapping the industry-recognized approach in favor of the traditional "registered apprenticeship" model.

“To make apprenticeship opportunities more widely available, we must connect apprenticeship to our higher education system.” — New America report

A month later, the Labor Department announced $87.5 million in federal grants for registered apprenticeships, including $40 million for states to expand and promote diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts.

And in May, the Senate proposed the Apprenticeships to College Act, which would create an "apprenticeship college consortium" through an interagency agreement between the departments of labor and education. The goal is to promote "stronger connections between programs under the national apprenticeship system and participating 2- and 4-year postsecondary educational institutions."

By formalizing partnerships between America's colleges and the apprenticeship system, the consortium would extend opportunities for apprentices — including many from disadvantaged backgrounds — seeking degrees to complement their industry experience. The effort also promises to make the apprentice system more of a mainstream element within higher education, much like ROTC has become.

"Apprenticeship is held back in the United States because it cannot deliver the credentials — college degrees — required for career advancement," concludes a New America report. "To make apprenticeship opportunities more widely available, we must connect apprenticeship to our higher education system, enabling people to be apprentices and college students at the same time."

Feature Image: Hinterhaus Productions / Stone / Getty Images

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