Leveling The Playing Field For Technical Education

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Millions of industry jobs don't require traditional college degrees; we need to capitalize on this.

Bet you never heard the one about the high school graduate who goes to college to get a bachelor's degree in English. She completes four years of study and hard work, but finds out afterward that there's not much she can do with the degree. Now what?

This is the scenario for millions of American college graduates. They go to study things like English, history, art, theater, etc., only to find that jobs in those areas are all but impossible to find.

So they end up taking low-paying, entry-level jobs in other fields for which they have either no training or experience. They may have a hard time paying their student loans, and can't get out of their parents' house or the small apartment which they can barely afford.

Many young people today are funneled through the liberal arts education because that's how the educational lending system is designed.

Currently, Pell Grants from the federal government are given to students like a voucher. They can use the grant money at a school of their choice, but only if the school of their choice is among the approved options in the federal law.

Students can use federal financial aid only for credit-bearing programs at accredited institutions that run for 15 weeks or longer—at least 600 clock hours of instruction.

Tamar Jacoby, president of Opportunity America, a Washington-based nonprofit working to promote economic mobility, suggests making Pell Grants available for a wider variety of post-secondary education options.

Some of the most promising job training takes place outside of accredited institutions—offered by employers or disruptive education innovators. Within the college context, many occupational programs are not credit-bearing.

Some Pell money does go toward schools that have “middle-skill” training programs (about 21% of Pell Grants), but with 30-50% of current job openings being in these industries, there's a huge gap between those with the skills and the demand of the workforce.

This means technical schools for lines of work (including those that won't become obsolete by automation, think blockchain technology or robotic repairs) are often financially out of reach for many students.

Senators Rob Portman and Tim Kaine have recently sponsored a bill to allow students to use Pell Grants to pay for short-term occupational training programs. Jacoby warns, however, that any change would have to involve addressing the issue of accreditation. If the Pell Grant can only be used at accredited institutions, the problem remains.

During its last years, the Obama administration began a pilot program to experiment with this idea.

The Educational Quality through Innovative Partnerships (EQUIP) initiative allows students to use Pell funding at programs run entirely by unaccredited education providers—as long as the sponsoring entity partners with a Pell-eligible institution and agrees to additional oversight by a neutral third party, often a non-profit or a consulting firm. The initiative is small: just $17 million for 1,500 students. The multitiered quality control is cumbersome, and it's not clear that it will be effective—there are many simpler options, including pay-for-performance funding. And there are no results yet—the experiment debuted in mid-2016. Still, it's a critical breakthrough—a first crack in the edifice of accreditation that could lead to more dramatic, far-reaching change in years ahead.

If Pell Grants are offered for these kinds of educational opportunities, students have more of an incentive to seek out training and education that will actually get them prepared for jobs in those fields after graduation. Rather than earning a four year-degree, taking out tens of thousands in loans, and not even working in their field of study, offering these grants for fields where jobs are readily available will better serve the next generation of American workers.

Some good news here in the President's infrastructure plan. The White House has decided that reforms to Pell Grants are needed in order to have a properly equipped workforce. Looks like someone has been paying attention!

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