OPM Director Beth Cobert has stressed that agencies should focus on reducing their skills gaps.

OPM Director Beth Cobert has stressed that agencies should focus on reducing their skills gaps. Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

New Partnership to Give Feds College Discount Will Benefit Both Employees and Agencies

Excelsior will help feds transfer credits and agencies tailor training efforts to address skills gaps.

Federal employees will soon have a new option for getting college credit for on-the-job training they already have received. Federal agencies will soon be able to craft academic tracks at an accredited college tailor made to plug their skills gaps.

Such are the expected benefits of a new partnership between the mostly online Excelsior College and the Office of Personnel Management. Excelsior joins Champlain College and University of Maryland University College as a post-secondary institution offering discounted degrees to federal workers, but college officials said in an interview that Excelsior would deliver offerings other programs do not.

For one, said Jeanne Contardo, executive director of Excelsior’s D.C. Center, the school offers more credit aggregation than virtually any college or university in the country. Excelsior will consider previous courses from any number of institutions, as well as training programs examined by faculty experts and assigned credit values (though the school will be “quick to say no,” she said, to giving credit to agency training programs that are not up to snuff). The school will consolidate all that information into one transcript to give incoming students a sense of where they stand.

“We’re not going to make you start over,” Contardo said.

Excelsior’s conversation with OPM started a year and a half ago, Contardo said, and revolved around known areas in which agencies had gaps -- such as cybersecurity and human resources. The school offers a master’s degree in public administration, including a “strong technology thread," and two degrees in criminal justice. It already serves a large swath of the military community, and Contardo said it was a natural fit to add the civilian workforce into Excelsior's student body.

Acting OPM Director Beth Cobert has stressed that agencies should focus on reducing their skills gaps, recently instructing all chief human capital officers to develop strategies to address them and creating quarterly and annual reporting requirements.

“OPM continually works with federal agencies to ensure their employees are able to handle the very important work they do on behalf of the American people,” Cobert said Tuesday. “With this agreement, we are helping them do just that, while also closing vital skills gaps to strengthen our workforce.”

Feds and their spouses will receive a 20 percent tuition discount for a bachelor’s degree and a 15 percent discount for a master’s. The average Excelsior student is 37 years old, so the college is well versed in accommodating mid-career individuals looking, for example, for a promotion that requires an advanced degree. Contardo stressed the agreement benefits agencies as much as it does the individual.

“If you’re an agency leader right now, you’re probably highly concerned about the skills gap, you’re concerned about where your workforce is going to come from, you’re concerned about retaining the workforce you do have,” Contardo said. Excelsior is engaging individual agencies to determine their specific needs.

Part of that process will involve a strategic marketing effort aimed at the workforce of each agency. It will also include Excelsior representatives sitting in on internal agency meetings, such as those with chief human capital officers, to identify recruiting challenges and even to put together training courses through the school tailored to address the organizations’ gaps.

While the partnership is not OPM’s first, Contardo said those customization options, as well as Excelsior’s “tactical implementation” plan and commitment to ensuring federal employees actually enroll, separate the school from its predecessors.

About 1,800 federal employees and their family members already have enrolled in the Champlain College program.

“If we don’t move federal employees into degree programs and then out of degree programs and into their promotions, we’re not being successful,” Contardo said.

Excelsior holds open enrollment, with programs starting up every eight weeks. The college will host webinars to educate feds about their offerings, and has already staffed up to handle the expected “pretty huge bump” in inquires from the workforce. The college currently maintains partnerships with the workforces of Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, as well the governments of Washington, D.C., and Alexandria, Va.

Contardo said providing federal employees with the knowledge to do their jobs is “a matter of national security.

 “We are committed to making sure our public servants get the education they need,” she said. 

Clarification: This article has been updated to more accurately characterize Excelsior College's offerings as compared to those of other schools.

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