The number of new registered apprentices surpassed 250,000 in 2019, up from just 110,000 in 2010.

As the cost of college skyrockets, more young people are looking to apprenticeships, which provide on-the-job learning, a training wage, and a direct line into high-earning jobs, as their preferred pathway to a better future. But apprentices still constitute a much smaller share of the U.S. labor force than they do in peer nations such as the United Kingdom and Germany.

Registered apprentices receive far less government funding per head than students who pursue traditional higher education. In other words, the federal government has its thumb on the scales in favor of incumbent colleges and universities. But there are several reforms Congress could consider that would make funding more equitable.

First, Congress could allow student aid funds such as Pell Grants to be used for the classroom components to approved apprenticeships. Currently, this is only permissible if the apprentice is enrolled in an approved degree or certificate program offered by an accredited college. But the academic programs offered by colleges may not always align with apprentices’ training needs. If Congress allowed approved apprenticeships to count as eligible programs for the purposes of student aid, more private employers would find it worth their while to offer them.

Apprentices taking college classes are also eligible for federal work-study, a program that tops up the wages of college students who work while enrolled. But work-study funding is limited, and colleges which have received more funds in the past are at the front of the line for new allocations each year. This largely excludes the community colleges and trade schools that typically partner with apprenticeship providers. Changing the funding allocation rules to support these sorts of institutions instead could also buoy the apprenticeship sector.

American apprenticeships do not need a major new government program to support them, but they should be allowed to operate on a level playing field with traditional colleges and universities. If even a fraction of the $143 billion that the federal government spends on higher education went to support apprenticeships (with appropriate quality safeguards), many more students could take advantage of this proven path to the middle class.