Student working on a laptop with a smartphone - perhaps registering for a short course

Short Programs for Career Training Schools

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Higher education discussions rarely focus on career training schools. Yet, these institutions can and do play a significant role in post-secondary education programs such as dental assisting, cosmetology, medical billing and coding, massage therapy, welding, and other fields. This article focuses on the new normal through short programs for career training schools, which have relied on synchronous learning in brick-and-mortar buildings. Other institution types may also find value in some of these suggestions.

Career training schools have relied on traditional courses and programs to provide instruction for those seeking employment skills and certifications. COVID-19 created a new normal for these programs which relied on synchronous learning in brick-and-mortar establishments. Suddenly, schools were faced with decisions that impacted their existence. How would they survive, not only a pandemic, but in an industry that was continuing to change? How could these institutions embrace the benefits of technology – quickly?

An Option and Opportunity

The answer may lie within short programs and blended learning. Many vocational and career training schools rely on Title IV (i.e., financial aid) to operate. So, panic ensued when the Department of Education and accrediting agencies issued regulations surrounding the continued receipt of those funds during COVID-19. These new regulations required additional compliance measures for an industry already short-staffed due to the furlough of employees in response to the pandemic. And let’s face it. The Department of Education continues to make changes which affect even the smallest of schools.

According to IPEDS, in 2018-19 reporting year, there were 2,585 students enrolled in programs less than two years in length. In April 2020, the unemployment rate was 14.7 percent, up substantially from a pre-pandemic rate in February 2020 of 3.5 percent. This is a great opportunity to provide career programs for those who lost their employment, had their work hours reduced, or want a change in careers.

So, how do we as career training and vocational schools meet this need?  One answer lies in short programs, of either residential or blended learning.

Student working on a laptop with a smartphone - perhaps registering for a short course

Short Programs

Short programs are those which require less than 400 clock hours or 12 weeks in length. While they are not eligible for Title IV, many individuals take these programs to quickly enhance current skills or obtain new ones. They can sometimes be added to existing programs for a certificate of completion.

These cash-pay programs do not require hiring additional staff or increasing operational expenses, as they are enhancements for current programs.  For example, a cosmetology program could start a make-up program using its current instructors. An instructor teaching medical coding could also teach a specialized home health care billing and coding program.

In addition, short programs can be run on days when other programs are not in session. Let’s say there are no courses running on Fridays. Yet, there are administrative and instructional staff on-site. A short program could run every Friday for 12 weeks or less using that same staff.

For the for-profit school sector, these short programs help meet the 90-10 regulation by increasing cash revenue. The 90-10 regulation limits the amount revenues from Federal student aid to 90% for for-profit schools.

Blended Learning

Blended learning is a newer concept for vocational and career training schools. Some colleges and universities, such as the University of Phoenix, have offered distance education since 1989, and some as blended learning. In a blended learning program, students attend classes a few days per week and complete on-line coursework on other days. Kaplan Career Institute offered blended learning certificate programs at its Michigan campuses. These programs are flexible enough to allow parents with childcare concerns or second or third shift schedules to obtain degrees with minimal disruption to their personal lives.

Next Steps

So, can this be done in all vocational or career training school? It depends on how forward thinking your school is.

First, inhale and exhale. Clear your mind of the fear that “we’ve always done it this way,” or even “We have to do this NOW!”  That’s not forward thinking. The following are some key considerations:

  • If the program does not require a license or certification, it may be easier to implement.
  • Research your accreditor’s requirements. If your accreditation is programmatic and not institutional, you may not have to get your short program accredited since you are not applying for Title IV funding.
  • Decide if you have the space and staff to offer short or blended learning programs.
  • Conduct a needs assessment to identify programs which could not only be offered without dramatic outlays of time and funding, but also be of value to employers.
  • Be realistic about programs which can be offered at your school. If your institution specializes in health care programs, adding short programs outside of the medical field may result in additional costs for staffing and supplies. But perhaps offering a four-week, 80 clock hour, dental billing program could enhance a medical billing program. If your institution offers cosmetology or esthiology programs, they could be complemented by a make-up program lasting just a few weeks.
  • Conduct a financial analysis. If you would like to see an additional $10,000 per month in net revenue gained from adding a short program, what is your break-even point?
  • Several white cards with the word Ideas scattered on a pale green tableCreate a committee of informed and interested stakeholders tasked with development of a program proposal. Add key administrative staff such as admissions, marketing, and front desk staff to the committee since they are on the front line and know the questions being asked by applicants and inquirers.
    1. Consider everyone’s ideas. There is no bad idea.
    2. Drill down the ideas based on your school’s mission statement, current programs, and realistic operational costs. For example, you don’t want to start a website development certificate course if your school has to hire additional instructors and purchase equipment.

Narrow It Down

Select one short program to implement at a time if you are a small school. Larger schools with more staff could implement more short programs. Regardless of your school’s size, the short programs should be monitored and evaluated, so that changes can be made to improve them. Remember, since you are only starting short programs within your realm of expertise, you can’t have two instructors teaching two programs at the same time.

  • Determine the length, days of attendance, cost and needed supplies and staff for the new program.
  • Research the cost parameters of the program and be realistic when it comes to establishing tuition. No matter how great you think the program is, and how valuable it is, the same program may be available via a different methodology for a lower price. Or students could pursue an apprenticeship which could be completed in the same amount of time. How low can your price point be – 10, 15 or 20 percent above cost?
  • Consider offering job placement or entrepreneurial assistance with the programs.
  • Determine a start date that will allow you to have all needed items in place, such as a classroom, kits, instructors, etc.
  • Determine how you will implement the distance learning portion of the blended program. How will you document students’ success and measure learning outcomes? Having a Zoom meeting and a few assignments may not be enough.

A Few Words of Warning

  • Don’t sign long-term contracts with vendors for your distance learning program. If your program is three months long, then sign a six-month contract with an option to renew. This way, if the program is not successful, you won’t have unassigned operating expenses resulting in lower or no net income for the program.
  • Always remember class size. Students change their minds. If the withdrawal rate in a program is 40%, the drop rate in the short or blended learning program may be the same. Starting a class of two or three students will make it awkward for the remaining student and instructor if someone withdraws. Is the instructor comfortable with this type of directed study environment?
  • Don’t rush this process. If you do, it more than likely won’t be successful since the buy-in will be limited, marketing won’t be perfect, and interest will be limited.
  • Monitor your social media and review sites for student comments, as well as current and graduate student surveys. These ratings provide valuable feedback on the program which will allow the school to make needed changes before enrollment declines. We sometimes forget that our students are our customers, just like we are customers for other businesses. They have the right to express themselves if they are not be happy with the institution.

Future Planning

Once the short or distance learning program has launched, the following are some questions for consideration to ensure the continued growth and health of the program.

  • Monitor it closely for needed changes. Is the technology appropriate for the program? Do students need to be provided Chromebooks, laptops or iPads?  Are the assignments strong enough or too weak for the program?
  • Monitor your bottom line. Is this program profitable? If it isn’t, what expenses can be reduced or eliminated?
  • Keep statistics on retention, graduation, placement, and satisfaction.
  • Develop a relationship with your state agencies to get recognition for the programs and state assistance.
  • Work with your community and state unemployment agencies. Many agencies have funding available for unemployed and under employed individuals to continue their education. Be aware that reporting comes with receiving these funds. After all, no government agency just gives money away. They are willing to make the investment through State funded grants such as WIA or ITA if the school has strong retention, graduation, and employment rates.

So, there you have it. As the world around us continues to change, and individuals look for ways to change or supplement their incomes, we must develop a new “normal” for our educational environments, learn from other institutions and think forward for the future.

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LaJanis Allen head shot

LaJanis Allen

LaJanis serves as Director of Compliance and Student Services at the Douglas J. Aveda Institute – Douglas J. School of Barbering.




The Institute for Effectiveness in Higher Education (IEHE) innovates and improves higher education standards through our strategic research, publicly available resources, and partnerships with colleges and universities. We provide extensive expertise on data strategy, IPEDS, institutional research and student success to drive institutional effectiveness.