In health care, financial services, software development — even law — apprenticeships are offering an alternative to paying college tuition.
The offer of a new life arrived in the mail for the son of a laid-off steelworker: a scholarship to study computer science.
But Tyler Holdener’s excitement quickly curdled into anxiety after he realized he would have to borrow nearly $14,000 a year, even with the school’s aid package.
He decided not to go to college. Instead, he is becoming a software-application engineer through LaunchCode, a St. Louis-based nonprofit that taught him to code and placed him in an apprenticeship at Centene, a health care company.
“I’ve started my career and I don’t have any debt at all,” said Mr. Holdener, 20, who earns $20 an hour during the apprenticeship, an amount that will increase if he is hired full-time.
As the cost of a college education continues to soar, a new breed of apprenticeship is cropping up across the country, promising an affordable path to careers that once needed a bachelor’s degree or higher.
In California, one of a handful of states where people can take the bar exam without going to law school, a new program helps low-income black and Latina women become lawyers by apprenticing for four years under an experienced attorney. In Kentucky, young people are offered the chance to shadow experienced social workers and join the state’s Civil Service. In Chicago, community-college students are training to become human resource managers and insurance brokers.
“Apprenticeships are proving to be an excellent alternative to the traditional four-year college degree,” said Aaron Olson of Aon, a professional-services company that helped start the Chicago Apprenticeship Network, which hopes to place 1,000 apprentices next year.
Lauren Richardson, a 33-year-old freelance media producer, said her dreams of law school were derailed when lack of funds forced her to drop out of community college.
“You kind of have to choose, ‘Am I going to pay the bills or am I going to go back to school?’ ” said Richardson, who will be starting tort law classes next month through Esq. Apprentice, a new and competitive California program that provides mentoring and cost-of-living assistance to legal apprentices. “It’s really like a story of redemption for me.”
Supporters of apprenticeships said expanding them would help young people more than proposals to cancel student debt or make college free put forth by Democratic presidential candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
“When you push through an academic-only approach, that’s going to disadvantage people who learn better by doing,” said Robert Lerman, a fellow at the Urban Institute who has researched apprenticeships around the world.
But many parents and educators remain skeptical of diverting low-income students away from a classic liberal arts education.
“The danger is that we’ll create a two-tier system, where you have people who can afford to go to the elite colleges, who get the networks to move into a great career, while you have lower-level pathways for everyone else,” said Marie Cini, president of the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, who supports expanding apprenticeships but acknowledges that the effort faces many challenges. “The question that I am starting to hear is ‘OK, you are from the elite. Would you send your kid to that?’ ”
Nonetheless, some apprenticeship programs are highly competitive, receiving a hundred applications for every available slot.
“They can be more selective than Stanford or Harvard,” said Ryan Craig, author of “College Disrupted” and the managing director of University Ventures, a fund that invests in innovations to higher education.
The apprenticeship model, which typically combines classroom learning in a boot camp or community college with paid on-the-job experience, is popular in Europe. About half of all young people in Germany participate in one. Britain recently ramped up its apprenticeships. But the model has yet to be brought to scale in the United States.
Experts estimate that roughly a million people are participating in some type of apprenticeship program in the United States this year, compared with about 20 million who are enrolled in colleges and universities.
The Labor Department counts 633,625 active apprentices in 2019, up from 375,000 in 2013, but not all programs go through the time-consuming process of registering. Registration can be a conduit for federal help in developing curriculum or tax credits in some states.
Although most apprenticeships are still in skilled trades, such as plumbing and electrical work, in the past two years more than 700 programs have been created in white-collar or “new collar” fields such as cybersecurity, financial services, information technology and health care, according to Labor Department data.