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Approaching Demographic Cliff, Liberal Arts Colleges Turn To Career And Tech Education For Adults

January 5, 2021

By Kirk Carapezza

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 that recently expanded its non-degree offerings.

“I had my GED 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 twenty 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.”

Stuck in the shelter, Claudia fell behind in her lab work, struggling to keep up with her manufacturing courses on campus — and online.

“I had to miss quite a lot of school,” she said. “It was frustrating just because I'm a hands-on type of learner. I don't really understand until I do it for myself.”

The number of new high school graduates in New England is expected to continue to shrink through 2037. 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 less and last just a few semesters, but the pandemic has pushed many classes aimed at older, non-traditional students online or socially distanced them when in person.

“In some cases, we’ve found that programs have needed to pause their cohorts or downsize their cohorts to keep with safety regulations,” said Shalin Jyotishi, a senior policy analyst in the Center on Education and Labor at the thinktank New America.

Despite challenges presented by COVID-19, Jyotishi recommends all kinds of colleges adopt short-term, non-degree programs as the traditional college-going demographic shrinks.

“These institutions are needing to enroll as many learners as they possibly can," he said. "And 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.”

Jyotishi points to new research by Strada Education Network that shows 65% of adults hoping to pursue higher education now prefer non-degree programs. That’s compared to 50% who preferred them before the pandemic.

“Offering more short-term, affordable programs will make you more attractive to a broader range of learners,” Jyotishi said, “whether they’re traditional college-age or adult learners looking to go back to school, upskill, to find new jobs.”

In Paxton, Anna Maria College is refocusing on the idea of "serving students who serve the community," educating people who want to work in fire, police 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. Regis College in Weston was considering starting a manufacturing certificate program when the pandemic hit.

So, why did Stonehill College decide to partner with MIT and Bridewater 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, the college's new dean of graduate admissions.

In the southeastern corner of Massachusetts there are only a few brick-and-mortar options for adults, acording to Ratliff. She said that Stonehill, which traditionally serves recent high school grads who live in dorms, was surprised by some of the older students’ needs.

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

Stonehill loaned students laptops and helped Claudia Cabrera move out of the homeless shelter and into a new apartment in Medford.

Sitting inside her apartment, wrangling 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.”

Diane Adame contributed to this report.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the location of Anna Maria College. It is in Paxton, Mass.


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