Will the “Apprenticeship Degree” Come to America? 

A version of this essay by Reach University President Joe E. Ross first appeared in Inside Higher Ed on July 25, 2023.  

Philanthropy Roundtable is pleased to share this essay by Joe E. Ross, president of Reach University. Ross and his team have worked to provide an innovative model that creates pathways to opportunity for individuals working within educational communities while simultaneously solving one of the largest problems plaguing our nation’s schools today – teacher talent pipelines. Reach University is providing a low-cost solution to the barrier of credentialing for individuals who are best positioned to meet the educational needs of their local communities through a groundbreaking apprenticeship model.  

Among high school seniors, a privileged few get to pick between elite, world-renowned colleges like Columbia, Duke, Harvard, MIT, Northwestern, Stanford, Wellesley or Yale.  

What if they could spend their next few years at investment bank Goldman Sachs instead?  

Some now can. Dozens of famous employers — including Goldman Sachs and other corporate luminaries like Deloitte, GE, IBM, J.P. Morgan, Nestlé, UBS and Rolls Royce — have begun to offer a four-year paid “apprenticeship” that leads to a debt-free bachelor’s degree.   

What’s the catch?  

Well, to apply for the Goldman Sachs gig and others like it, you need to be based in the United Kingdom. Here in the United States, the apprenticeship-to-degree model is only beginning to emerge, particularly for working adults who otherwise lack access to college. If the idea takes off, it could be a long-term solution to the $1.7 trillion student debt crisis and restore lagging faith in American higher education.  

How does this model work?  

Imagine a job – a paid job – that turns into a degree. Applicants apply to the employer. The diploma is technically conferred by a collaborating university. But the action happens outside the Ivory Tower. Half of the learning comes from on-the-job work. The rest comes from job-relevant classes typically held outside of working hours. Tuition is largely paid for as part of the learner’s compensation. There are no student loans. 

Early adopters of a similar approach in the United States include state education agencies and K-12 school districts seeking to address the teacher shortage. The nonprofit Reach University created a debt-free, apprenticeship-based bachelor’s degree specifically for school employees in Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado and Louisiana. Launched in fall 2020, the fully job-embedded program has grown from 50 candidates to over 1,500 in less than three years.  

The federal Pell grant typically covers all but $2,000 of the cost of the job-embedded degree program. Philanthropy or Labor Department apprenticeship funding covers most of the remaining tuition, so each candidate’s out-of-pocket contribution is capped at $900 per year. That’s enough to ensure some skin in the game, while keeping the program affordable without student debt.  

Dr. Heath Grimes is the superintendent of the rural Russellville City School District in northwest Alabama. The majority of students in Russellville are Hispanic but the district has had a hard time recruiting bilingual staff. Grimes began last year to recruit prospective hires who had graduated from the local community college. He positioned the district as a kind of “transfer institution” where they could use their job to turn their associate degree into a bachelor’s degree.   

Elizabeth Alonzo, who held an associate degree in business, was among the first to accept this unusual offer. She now serves as an English language aide. Her job is a kind of apprenticeship where what she does at work renders both a paycheck from the district and academic credit from Reach University. Less than a year from now, Alonzo will graduate with the bachelor’s degree she needs to become a teacher. 

She will be the first fully bilingual elementary school teacher in Russellville.  

For now, the apprenticeship-to-degree program at Reach exclusively serves school employees – classroom aides, coaches and bus drivers, for example – who aspire to become teachers, and who first need to earn a bachelor’s degree.  

But could this idea expand in the United States to fields outside of teacher preparation?  

The answer is yes. Just look at what’s happening in the United Kingdom. More than 100 universities now offer so-called “degree apprenticeships” in fields ranging from management consulting to medicine, and more than 40,000 new students enroll each year. Robert Halfon, the U.K. minister for higher education and skills, likes to say that “degree” and “apprenticeship” are his two favorite words.  

The ordering of those words — degree before apprenticeship — reflects the complexity of the apprenticeship system in the United Kingdom, where the “degree apprenticeship” is the pinnacle of a multi-level system that also includes the “intermediate apprenticeship” and “advanced apprenticeship.” This nomenclature does not translate on our side of the Atlantic. It makes more sense to refer to the American version as the “apprenticeship degree.”  

After all, amid skyrocketing student debt, it’s not the apprenticeship that needs to be modified. It’s the degree.  

That’s why Reach University is bringing together policymakers, philanthropists, employers and entrepreneurial leaders in higher education and workforce development to launch a new nationwide center to advance the apprenticeship degree – not as a postsecondary alternative, but as a postsecondary option – and to make it mainstream in the United States.  

We believe the emergence of the apprenticeship degree has three notable implications for the future of American higher education:  

  1. For starters, we’re skeptical of narratives that paint the apprenticeship as a mere “alternative” to college. This is a false binary. An apprenticeship that intentionally leads to a degree provides both near-term job skills and long-term upward mobility.  
  1. Second, we imagine the future of college as the future of work: The workplace becomes a campus. Colleagues become classmates. Classes may be online, but learners are not remote. This would be a big change for higher education. To conflate the apprenticeship degree with an online degree or an executive degree would be like mistaking Superman for a bird or plane. 
  1. Finally, when it comes to the nation’s seemingly intractable student loan crisis, we believe the debt-free apprenticeship degree could save the day. But this will only happen if job-embedded higher education goes mainstream, drawing the imagination of learners across all income levels. 

Enrique Peñalosa, a former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, has been quoted describing this third dynamic in the context of urban policy: “The sign of an advanced society is not where the poor have cars, it’s where even the rich use public transportation.” 

Similarly, we’ll know the apprenticeship degree is changing the landscape of opportunity in America when rich and poor alike aspire to a job that will lead to a good degree.  

Not the other way around.   

To learn more about Reach University, visit www.reach.edu. If you are interested in helping accelerate Reach’s work addressing the teacher shortage or supporting Reach’s Fall 2023 launch of the new National Center for the Apprenticeship Degree (NCAD), please contact NCAD Executive Director Eric Dunker, [email protected].   

For more information about other organizations providing Pathways to Opportunity, reach out to Philanthropy Roundtable Program Director Erica Haines.  

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