Eight Strategies for Integrating Apprenticeship and College

More Americans will choose apprenticeship when it links to our sprawling higher ed system. CESNA has eight recommendations for making the connection.
Blog Post
New America
July 26, 2018

On July 18, 2018 the U.S. Department of Labor announced an exciting new source of funding for colleges and universities that want to develop apprenticeship programs. The Scaling Apprenticeship Through Sector Based Strategies grant program will provide funds to partnerships between institutions of higher education and industry associations to design and deliver apprenticeships in high-demand fields like cybersecurity, software development, healthcare, financial services, and many more.

At New America, we have written about the importance of strengthening connections between our national apprenticeship system and higher education so that college students can be apprentices and apprentices can be college students. Last year, in recommendations detailed below, we outlined how schools can build “degree apprenticeships” that give students the opportunity to earn and learn on the job while also getting a degree. We also called for the Departments of Labor and Education to develop a grant program to fund the development of degree apprenticeships - and now they have!

If you are interested in learning more about degree apprenticeships and how this funding opportunity can help you build them, please contact our team at apprenticeship@newamerica.org.

In a time of partisan polarization, apprenticeship has maintained broad appeal. A recent national survey found that Americans viewed apprenticeship as favorably as four-year public universities, and that a large majority of respondents, both Democrats and Republicans, “strongly favored” more government spending to support apprenticeship. Apprenticeship is one of the only safe topics to discuss with your family over the holidays.

Its appeal is not hard to understand. Apprenticeship is a highly effective strategy for equipping individuals with valuable knowledge, skills, and work experience. A high percentage of apprenticeship completers transition directly into jobs with average earnings of over $50,000 per year. And they finish their program with zero student loan debt, compared to an average of $30,000 for today’s college students.

But so far, American apprenticeship has not grown to scale. In 2016, only around 500,000 people were enrolled in the Registered Apprenticeship system. Compare that to academic higher education, where 2 million new students enroll in community college every year. There are only a tiny number of apprentices compared to the number of students enrolled in college.

Part of the reason for this disparity is the failure of apprenticeship to connect to the higher education system. This has meant that successful apprentices don’t have access to the degrees that are necessary to advance in most careers. In fact, outside of the skilled trades, career advancement in the United States increasingly requires an associate’s or bachelor’s degree – which only colleges and universities can award.

New America has eight recommendations to more effectively tie together apprenticeship and higher education. Our recommendations fall into three categories: connecting higher education and apprenticeship systems, finance strategies for connected apprenticeships, and program design principles to ensure that modern apprenticeships match the pace of social and technological change. 

Connecting Systems:

1. Create a special class of student that is also an apprentice and a special class of postsecondary academic degree that includes the core features of apprenticeship, using the following definition: 

  • A “student-apprentice” meets the definition of “regular student” as defined by the Higher Education Act, 34 CFR Part 600 and “apprentice” as defined by the National Apprenticeship Act, 29 CFR Part 29.2.
  • A “Degree Apprenticeship,” is an apprenticeship program that meets the standards established in the National Apprenticeship Act 29 CFR Part 29.5 and the requirements of a postsecondary degree program as established by the relevant state education agency in the state where the program is delivered.

2. Incorporate the definitions for “student-apprentice” and “Degree Apprenticeships” into:

  • Relevant legislation including but not limited to the Higher Education Act, the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, the National Apprenticeship Act, the Trade Assistance Act, and the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act.
  • Federal and state data dictionaries and data collection systems including, but not limited to, the Common Education Data Standards (CEDS) and the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data Systems (IPEDS).

3. Develop a process for expanding the definition of “Registration Agency” in the National Apprenticeship Act, 29 CFR Part 29 to include state education agencies that meet a set of established criteria. Those criteria should include:

  • Formal recognition from the U.S. Secretary of Labor,
  • Demonstrated capacity to verify the standards of apprenticeship laid out in the National Apprenticeship Act, 29 CFR Part 29.
  • Demonstrated capacity to collect and report performance data on apprentices and apprenticeship programs.

Financing Strategies:

4. Create an annual discretionary grant program using H-1B Visa funds to support the development of Degree Apprenticeship programs. Grants will fund partnerships among employers and/or industry associations, institutions of higher education, and other intermediaries as appropriate.

5. Expand and reform the Federal Work-Study program to allow funds to cover the tuition and fees of “student-apprentices” as defined in the earlier section. 

6. Integrate apprenticeship into state financial aid and free college programs, adjusting eligibility criteria to include “student-apprentices,” particularly for apprenticeships that address key labor market need or make college free for adults. 

Designing Degrees:

7. Engage industry and professional associations in the design of competency-based curricula for the on-the-job learning components of Degree Apprenticeships that can be used across multiple employers and institutions. 

8. Engage the accreditor community, particularly specialty accreditors, to develop quality principles to guide the development of Degree Apprenticeships in high demand fields, in including healthcare and engineering.


You can find a recording of our December 6th, 2017 release event for our recommendations here, and we hope you’ll join the conversation about Degree Apprenticeships (and our recommendations for creating more of them) using the hashtag #StudentApprentice. 

This blog was originally posted on December 13th, 2017 and was updated on July 26th, 2018 to reflect new developments and to ensure maximum utility for practitioners and policymakers.

Related Topics
Apprenticeship Higher Education Access and Affordability College and Career Readiness Workforce Development & CTE