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Kentucky Governor Offers Free Certificate Programs

By - Source: Toms IT Pro

In 2016, Kentucky passed a program to pay tuition for college students in 2-year degree programs. Governor Matt Bevin vetoed that bill, but left money in the budget to fund it. He has now reversed limitations to those funds to those seeking certifications

Photo credit: Shutterstock/PatrickDelahantyPhoto credit: Shutterstock/PatrickDelahantyLast year, House Democrats in Kentucky tried to pass the Work Ready Scholarship program, which would pay tuition for college students in two-year degree programs after they exhausted other, existing state scholarship programs. The Republican Governor, Matt Bevin, vetoed that bill, but left $15.9 million in the state's budget to fund it. He also issued an executive order that limited the use of those funds to individuals seeking certificates in five areas that need workers: healthcare, advanced manufacturing, business services and IT, construction and transportation and logistics. He has now done a switcheroo and replaced the free community college degrees with free certifications.

Much of the program delivery still depends on the community college system in Kentucky. In fact, they're all industry based and backed, and come through Kentucky's Community and Technical College System, along with other four-year educational institutions that also support certificate programs as well. The Governor's program switch is actually a bonus for older workers. The original program was aimed exclusively at high school graduates moving onto their next step up the educational ladder, its replacement "…is for Kentuckians of any age who want to go back to school or get started in a new career," in the words of Hal Heiner, Secretary of the Education and Workforce Cabinet for the State of Kentucky.

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This raises the very interesting social question of whether public monies are better spent to prepare new entrants to the workforce with general training versus supporting entrants of all ages seeking better forms of employment for the remainder of their working lives, however long or short that period might be. One can argue that it's better to support young people preparing to enter the workforce with such dollars, because the ROI on that investment will be maximal. Or, one can argue that it's better to support working people of all ages, because this reduces the outlays otherwise necessary to support out-of-work older workers who might not be able to re-enter the workforce, or find only marginal employment without access to such assistance.

Regardless, it's interesting that where the Kentucky legislature sought to provide additional assistance for high school graduates, its Governor sought instead to support workers of all ages. There's a broad contrast between the legislature's targeting of general two-year community college degrees versus more specific, jobs-oriented targeting from the Governor for jobs in industries where statewide needs are most acute. I can't help but think that even community colleges would be more inclined to support the Governor in this instance, because a primary mandate for those institutions is to help prepare local students of all ages for rapid assimilation into the local workforce. That's the usual rationale for supporting community college with local tax dollars, proper tax assessments, and other funding mechanisms.

It's also interesting that a focused certificate program aimed at specific job roles, skills and knowledge, and responsibilities is being judged as equivalent to, or at least of equal or greater value, when compared to a two-year Associate's level degree. Most educators would argue that the degree outweighs the certificate, because it includes a general learning/background component and stresses "learning how to learn" at the same time that it seeks to provide coverage of one or more subjects with a "let's get ready for the workplace" focus. The Governor's outlook seems to be to stress filling open job slots over preparing citizens to function productively in the workforce over the long term.

Additional comments from Mr. Heiner, however, show that his staff believes that certificates can serve both needs (addressing immediate employment gaps, and enabling citizens to enjoy long, productive careers): "We wanted to be very targeted, knowing that if people get on those [employment] rungs, they'll likely continue with their education." At present, there's enough money in the program to get as many as 8,000 people trained, though the Lexington Herald Leader goes onto report that "it's not yet clear how much demand there will be for the scholarship."

This certainly raises some interesting issues on how government and education can work together to help address skills gaps and employment needs. Individuals will continue to make their own choices while the debate continues. I believe we'll see a mix of degrees, certifications and retraining efforts continue as the workforce continues its ongoing shift into more knowledge- and technology-based positions in all industries and walks of life.