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A Clear Path Forward
More than 50 years after its founding, Thomas Edison State University remains true to its mission: improving access to a college degree in innovative ways.

by Matt Cosentino

When Thomas Edison State University (TESU) was founded in 1972, its goal was to reimagine higher education for non-traditional students, particularly working adults, with an emphasis on flexibility and learning opportunities beyond the classroom. More than 50 years later, amidst a changing collegiate landscape marked by escalating costs and dwindling enrollment, TESU continues to meet that critical mission with innovative approaches.

One shining example is an initiative combining apprenticeship programs and on-the-job training in various trades with a college education. Backed by an NJ PLACE grant from the New Jersey Department of Labor, TESU allows student-apprentices to receive college credits for completing their apprenticeship program, hastening their pathway to an associate degree while saving money.

“Typically, people are presented with a little bit of a fork in the road: Do I go for a career in the trades and not incur student loan debt, or do I go the route of earning a college degree?” says Jeffrey D. Harmon, Ed.D., TESU’s Vice Provost for Strategic Initiatives and Institutional Effectiveness.

“What we’ve done is taken that fork out of the road and blended the two pathways: a collegiate education and an apprenticeship, leveraging the training that they’re engaged in and using that to accelerate them through a degree program.”

While student-apprentices are expected to engage with the content, tackle difficult coursework and take exams, the online learning can be completed on their own schedule. What’s more, because of the NJ PLACE grant, the cost is 100% covered: no student loans, financial aid or out-of-pocket expenses.

“So they’re really in the catbird’s seat: They’re going to finish their registered apprenticeship program and have a long career in the trades, and they’re going to get a college degree without all of the debt that is typically associated with it,” Harmon says.

Harmon, who regularly speaks to apprentices in a wide range of statewide unions to encourage participation, notes several major advantages of the program.

“Think of it as an insurance plan: We don’t know what life is going to throw at us, and having a college degree in your portfolio is never going to hurt you and makes you a well-rounded citizen,” he says. “Also, you might want to open your own business someday in your trade. Take classes from Thomas Edison in and around small business management, taxation and employment rules, things that can help you set up that business if it comes time for you to do so.”

Harmon adds that teaching can be an option later, should the work become too physically demanding with age.

Nick Phelan, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps, joined Carpenters Local 254 in Edison after his honorable discharge and eventually found his way to TESU as a student-apprentice. Last year, he earned his Associate in Applied Science degree in Construction and Facility Support.

“There is always room to grow, learn and improve,” Phelan previously told TESU during an interview for the university’s Invention magazine. “There are many avenues a career in the carpenters’ union and construction industry can take, and a degree can open up those opportunities. Though a college education is not essential in my field, a degree has the potential to set me apart.”

TESU’s opportunities for earning college credits extend to vocational high school students, namely through Career Connections, a national pre-apprenticeship carpenters’ program. Available at 90 New Jersey sites, high school juniors and seniors engage with relevant content before beginning apprenticeships and having a chance to simultaneously pursue a TESU degree.

The university is a pioneer in providing college credit for prior learning. Through its Professional Learning Review (PLR) program, TESU has evaluated hundreds of learning experiences in fields like health care, law enforcement, education, STEM and many more; last year alone it awarded 66,000 credits for free to individuals who have completed various training programs in professional settings.

“Student can then leverage these credits by applying them toward a degree, and accelerate toward graduation by not having to take those courses over again,” Harmon explains. “Credit for prior learning is getting a lot of traction right now as institutions of higher ed look to recruit non-traditional students, but we’ve been doing it for 50-plus years. We are committed to recognizing college-level learning wherever and however it may occur.”

The school’s industry partners can also benefit since they can incentivize employees with this pathway by enabling them to complete a training program while making significant strides toward a degree. It is available to not only current program members but also anyone who has completed it within the past decade.

Recognizing that many people may not be aware of how many previous college credits they’ve earned, TESU established a free online tool on its website called the Credit Predictor, allowing users to create an account and determine how many prior learning credits they are possibly entitled to.

“Most people typically complete a wide array of professional training in their life and we’ve evaluated many of these learning opportunities,” Harmon says. “Credit Predictor will give them an idea of how their prior training may convert to college credit, what degrees the credit may apply toward, and, perhaps it just may end up being the tipping point for them, leading them to pursue a degree. I think it’s a very valuable resource and it could be an educational game-changer.”


Thomas Edison State University

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