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.
The Georgetown Public Policy Institute estimates that 11 million jobs pay more than $50,000 annually, and that these jobs require some post-high-school education but less than a bachelor’s degree. A Manpower survey earlier this year found that 49 percent of employers were having difficulty filling openings for mechanics, drivers, nurses, accountants, and IT workers—jobs that need some training but not four years of college.
Yet the training programs that target these jobs are routinely shoved to the bottom of a crowded public-policy agenda, as Congress focuses on unemployment insurance, student loans, or college-financing programs. Gragg said that her biggest goal next year is making sure that job training isn’t forgotten when lawmakers start debating hotter topics, such as student financial aid or immigration reform.
On immigration, lawmakers are proposing that undocumented workers learn English to earn legal status. That proposal raises huge red flags for basic adult education, which is barely surviving now on a $600 million federal budget. “The system is already so overtaxed, if you dumped 11 million more people into it, it would be a disaster,” Gragg said.
Immigration is likely to be the most contentious debate in Congress in 2013. Obama has made immigration reform his top priority after “fiscal cliff” issues are resolved, and lawmakers already are staking out their positions on legalization, citizenship, and work authorization.
Education and workforce training won’t grab headlines, but they will be an integral part of the immigration debate. Democrats and Republicans both want to give green cards to foreign college graduates who major in science and math, although they can’t do that without also making it easier for Americans to enroll in the same programs. That’s why Obama’s campaign stump speech included a call for 100,000 new math and science teachers.
The student-loan issue will surface next year as well because the interest rate for need-based loans is set to double in July. Congress found a way to put off that rate hike this year, and lawmakers must act in 2013 to sustain the lower rate. The campaign to keep student interest rates low proved to be a potent election issue for Obama among young voters. He may go further in that vein next year, asking that student-loan repayments be tied to a borrower’s income level. That debate will also serve to push the tenuous link between college costs and first-job salaries into the spotlight.
ADULTS NEED SKILLS, TOO
The college-going population is not monolithic. In addition to enrolling full-time 18-year-olds with backpacks, colleges also admit adults who have jobs and families and go to school part time. Some of the older students are trying to start over after long tenures in jobs that have disappeared.
“This does not get enough attention in the education debate—what are we going to do about adults?” said Jamie Merisotis, president of the Lumina Foundation, which focuses on higher education. Virtually all jobs created since the 2008 recession require at least some education past high school, he said, yet four-fifths of the people who lost their jobs in that recession have a high school diploma or less.
Obama’s dislocated-worker program could serve as a jumping-off point to match recession victims with employers. The biggest problem with his proposal is that it costs money, although Congress could put the mechanism in place now and fund it later. Lawmakers have been working on related legislation that would update the federal job-training system, but the bill stalled this year, and it’s unclear if the political climate will improve next year.
Although Obama wants community colleges to function as “community career centers,” the National Skills Coalition’s Gragg said that training dollars need to go beyond community colleges to reach 93 million adults with very low skills. That’s where the stalled job-training measure comes in, because it includes funding for basic adult education. “There are a lot of people who will never walk onto a community college campus, but they will walk into a community-based organization,” she said. These people often face an array of barriers to employment—family responsibilities, illiteracy, and the burdens of poverty.
Fortunately for everyone, skills development is bipartisan. Elected officials across the political spectrum recognize the need to help jobless adults find work. “Many Americans don’t have the skills to fill the jobs that are being created,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., at a recent forum sponsored by The Atlantic and the Aspen Institute. “They’re not all kids. Take my sister. In her mid- to late 30s, she had not graduated from college.” With federal aid, he said, she got a bachelor’s degree and now works as aschool administrator.
THE TRUE VALUE OF COLLEGE
The weak economy has heightened the public’s sense that college is too expensive for what students get in return. It’s hard to argue that a $200,000 college degree is worth the money when you have to move back in with your parents after graduation because you can’t find a job. Moreover, many recent graduates who did find work don’t make enough to justify the high cost of their education.
“You can’t talk about debt without talking about what the earnings are,” said Schneider of College Measures. “If you’re going to borrow $70,000 and make $20,000, you’ve made a bad financial decision. If you borrow $20,000 and you make $70,000, that’s a great investment.”
Schneider founded College Measures to familiarize the public with the monetary value of college. Using state unemployment and transcript data, his online database catalogs the average starting salaries tied to all majors at public colleges and universities. The most recently released data on Virginia, for example, showed that a bachelor’s degree in information science from the University of Richmond resulted in an average first-year salary of $82,622. By contrast, first-year wages for studio-arts majors at Bridgewater College averaged $20,612. College Measures has produced similar reports for Arkansas and Tennessee; Colorado, Nevada, and Texas are on tap.
Schneider’s numbers are rough, but they give people the tools to compare individual college programs. “How should a state invest money? Say it has three philosophy programs. In one of them, the average salary is $18,000. The other one is $25,000. The other one is $30,000. Maybe that tells you something about the program where students are only making $18,000,” he said.
This kind of reasoning leads to some uncomfortable questions. Must a state-funded university be comprehensive? Does every student have the right to take a philosophy class? How many philosophy majors do we need?
The answers conjure up emotional defenses of liberal-arts degrees, which always fare worse than the technical degrees in these kinds of analyses. Schneider is unapologetic. “Some of the most successful people I know are liberal-arts grads from the Ivy Leagues. And, you know, fine. Awesome. Does that translate to a regional [school] in the middle of Indiana? That’s what we need to know.”
Schneider argues that the higher-education system cannot continue functioning as it does now, with professors lecturing to smart kids who then work hard and graduate because they’re smart, not because the professor has given them a new set of employable skills. “The traditional attitude toward faculty was, ‘I’m dispensing knowledge. Learn it or don’t learn it.’ ‘Do I know if you graduated or don’t graduate? I don’t have a clue.’ ‘Do I know if you got a job or didn’t get a job? I don’t care,’ ”he said. “It’s all paid for by taxpayers, very heavily subsidized, and I don’t think it can go on much longer.”
As long as Obama continues to emphasize workplace skills, he can open up the conversation about tying higher education more closely to workplace needs and about encompassing adult learners. The change will be gradual, because the higher-education system is diverse and job-training dollars are scarce. The good news is that no one disputes the intrinsic value of skills development, which means the policymakers don’t need to convince anyone that it’s a good idea. They just need to figure out a way to make it happen.
Arne Duncan: The Education secretary is close to the president and shares his vision of making the United States’ economy competitive through education.
Jill Biden: A former community-college president, the second lady has led the White House’s campaign to promote two-year colleges.
Martha Kanter: The undersecretary of Education focuses on higher-education issues, including financial aid. She provides information to Congress on Pell Grants and other student-aid programs.
Patty Murray: The Democratic senator from Washington state authored the legislation to update the long-ignored job-training system.
Easing debt: The student-loan interest rate is scheduled to double in July, but the White House and Congress are likely to extend the current 3.4 percent rate for at least another year. It has proven politically unpopular to let the rate double, as required by law.
No Child Left Behind Act: The Education Department’s state waiver program for schools has taken the pressure off lawmakers to reauthorize the George W. Bush-era K-12 law.
Dislocated-worker aid: Obama’s plan for an assistance program for dislocated workers could be put in place by lawmakers, but it will lack for funding. The current slate of job-training programs is subject to automatic cuts if Congress and the White House fail to reach a budget deal.
This is the second in a series of stories on the challenges facing President Obama in his second term. It appeared in print as "The Jobs Pipeline."
This article appears in the Dec. 1, 2012, edition of National Journal.