President Obama is among the throng of public officials who tout education as the path to economic success. “Education was the gateway to opportunity for me. It was the gateway for Michelle. And now, more than ever, it is the gateway to a middle-class life,” he said at the Democratic National Convention in September.
But the connection between education and employment is not as straightforward as one might think. Although a college degree is better than no degree, it is hardly a guarantee of success. In truth, the nation’s higher-education system consists of a miasma of schools through which students, with the help of taxpayers, can obtain credentials that may or may not say something about their abilities and may or may not be linked to a particular kind of job. Often, traditional higher education doesn’t match the workforce’s needs of today or tomorrow. Many of the hardest-to-fill jobs identified by employers don’t require four-year degrees, yet vocational and technical training is the most lacking of all the postsecondary education options in the country.
As the United States continues to grapple with the lingering effects of the Great Recession, as well as the decline of some economic sectors and the rise of others, one of the uncomfortable truths facing policymakers is that no magic bullet will transform the traditional higher-education system into a guaranteed pipeline to new-economy jobs. The federal government has limited clout over colleges and universities. Most federal money is directed to students through Pell Grants and loans, not to schools themselves.
Obama can, however, sprinkle his vision of a skills-based economy into issues such as immigration, college financing, welfare-to-work, and a handful of job-training programs that are set to expire. He has promised to lean on colleges to keep their tuition costs from going up too fast. He has also proposed a dislocated-worker training program, with wage insurance for older workers, to help the unemployed convert to different jobs.
Earlier in Obama’s first term, the administration found itself in a pitched battle with career and technical colleges when the Education Department proposed rules that held those schools accountable for the economic fates of their graduates. The for-profit college industry lobbied heavily against the rules and successfully sued the department for overstepping its authority.
The scuffle revealed deep concerns among educators about the government’s expectation that higher education should ensure employment. Officials from the for-profit industry said that their businesses would be ruined if Washington made federal dollars contingent on their students’ employment status and wages. There are intervening factors between a student’s schooling and his or her subsequent employment, they argued, including personal choices and economic conditions.
Colleges and universities need to embrace “competency-based” models before the government can hold them responsible for employment, said Mark Schneider, a former commissioner of education statistics who now heads the research group College Measures. These models minimize scholastic exploration and emphasize a student attaining specific skills. School counselors lay out a plan for their students when they walk in the door, giving them a prescribed set of courses that lead to a defined goal. A few flagship colleges do this now, but they are not yet the norm.
The competency-based system works—schools that use it have higher job-placement rates for their graduates—but it also upsets long-held notions of academic freedom and the very nature of higher education. “If we’re skills oriented, and skills are cumulative over a curriculum, if I’m teaching the second course in that sequence, I need to know that the foundation was laid in the first course,” Schneider said. “This is a challenge to the traditional academic-faculty model.”
THE QUEST FOR “MIDDLE JOBS”
Vocational and technical training are keys to filling many jobs in today’s workforce, but few postsecondary institutions emphasize this approach. Obama’s emphasis on skills will bring to light an uncomfortable truth: High schools have largely given up on vocational training because of public concerns about “tracking” students into nonprofessional jobs. Two-year associates’ degrees are considered suspect unless employers are familiar with the institution that awarded them. Government job-training programs have been neglected for so long that they function as little more than referral services.
“We talk a lot about ‘middle jobs,’ ” said Rachel Gragg, federal policy director at the National Skills Coalition. These are the jobs that pay a living wage but require only a year or two of vocational training beyond high school. “They tend to be technical jobs—health care, transportation, logistics. They are place-based, [like] extracting natural gas. They can’t be shipped overseas,” she said.