1 in 6 adults lacks basic skills

One in six U.S. adults lacks basic literacy and numeracy skills, according to an international survey by the OECD.

We “have a pretty good handle on what works,” writes Mary Alice McCarthy on EdCentral. Integrating literacy and numeracy instruction into job training has proven effective, as shown by Washington’s I-BEST program.

However, federal policy now denies aid to high school dropouts seeking college job training. Until the law changed in 2012, dropouts could qualify for aid if they showed an “ability to benefit” by passing a basic skills assessment or earning six postsecondary academic credits.

This enabled community colleges to offer integrated education and training programs (like the widely-touted I-BEST) to millions of adults who could not afford college and lacked a high school credential, many of them immigrants and/or working adults. Despite evidence from a federally-funded experiment that adults who earned six credits were just as likely to complete their postsecondary program of study as students entering with a high school credential, this option was eliminated for students in 2012.

In addition, key workforce training programs have lost more than $1 billion—more than 30 percent – in federal funding since 2010.

‘Ability to benefit’ aid could be restored

High school dropouts with college-ready skills lost access to federal student aid in 2012. Now there’s bipartisan support for restoring “ability to benefit” (ATB) aid for students in “career pathways,” reports Inside Higher Ed.

Two years ago, Congress wanted to cut Pell spending and “Democrats wanted to crack down on for-profits,” which enrolled many ATB students. Community colleges, which also enrolled ex-dropouts, didn’t have the political clout to protect ability-to-benefit aid, notes Inside Higher Ed. “Some observers said other higher education associations didn’t lend much support to their cause.”

Much of the impact of the end of ability to benefit was felt in California, according to the state’s community college system. The year before the cut, about 19,000 California community college students without a high school credential sought federal financial aid, according to a 2013 written statement from the system and the California Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

“Economizing by closing the door on the neediest individuals who stand to gain the most from some career-specific postsecondary training just does not make policy, political or economic sense,” according to the statement.

Lawmakers should restore the aid, but limit the program to schools with a good track record, writes Stephen Burd on EdCentral.

While the ATB program benefited many students, it also experienced substantial controversy. In 2009, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), for example, conducted an undercover investigation at a publicly-traded for-profit college and found that the school was helping prospective students cheat on the ATB exam, presumably to pump up its enrollment numbers and collect more federal student aid funds. Test administrators gave the students answers to some of the questions. They also tampered with the test forms – crossing out wrong answers and replacing them with the right ones – to ensure that students passed.

Limiting ATB to schools that meet accountability metrics and have a cohort default rate under 15 percent would prevent abuse, advises the New America Foundation. And it would provide a second chance to people who desperately need more education to earn a living, concludes Burd.

Beyond the skills gap

Job training has moved from employers to colleges — especially community colleges — writes New America Foundation’s Mary Alice McCarthy. The “skills gap” is a policy gap, she concludes.

The Higher Education Act (HEA) needs to be reframed to “support all forms of postsecondary learning, including students on non-degree paths and those seeking specific skills and credentials,” McCarthy writes in Beyond the Skills Gap: Making Education Work for Students, Employers, and Communities.

We are already paying a high price for our failure to support students in these programs – high debt levels, poor employment outcomes, wasted taxpayer dollars, and employers who still struggle to find workers with the right skills. . . . we know a lot about what makes postsecondary career education work – industry partnerships, structured learning pathways, contextualized instruction, and stackable credentials. Now we need to build the federal, state, and institutional policies to support those practices.

As an example, she looks at a Michigan woman who wants to qualify as a medical assistant, a growing field that can be a first step to nursing and other health careers. She faces a baffling array of choices.

In eastern Michigan, the for-profit Everest Institute’s 10-month medical assistant certificate program costs about $20,000. Career Quest Learning Center in Lansing charges $15,000 for an eight-month program. Federal student grants and loans will help cover the cost of her tuition and related expenses.

In the western part of the state, Grand Rapids Community College offers a six-month certificate program that costs only $7,585, but it is “noncredit.” That means she’s not eligible for federal Pell grants or student loans and can’t use her training as the first step toward an associate degree.

Kalamazoo Valley Community College‘s certificate program only costs about $4,000. Students can get state and federal grants and loans. “But there is most likely a waiting list, so she will probably need to wait a semester or two,” writes McCarthy. “In addition, she will have to pass the course placement exams to be admitted or complete remedial courses until she can bring her scores up enough to be allowed to enroll.”

Or perhaps she could consider the 20 schools in Michigan that offer associate degrees in medical assisting at varying costs.

All this for a job with an average annual salary in Michigan of $27,000 – or about $13 an hour.

More than half of undergraduate credentials are in career education, writes McCarthy. Thirty-three percent are vocational certificates and 20 percent are occupationally focused associate degrees. These days, “more than 500 institutions of higher education offer undergraduate certificates in welding technology for which you can get a Pell grant or federal student loan.”

But it’s hard for vocational students to move to academic tracks. Their credits aren’t “stackable.” And it’s easy for colleges to “deliver expensive, low-quality career education programs,” she writes.

Most short-term training programs aren’t eligible for federal aid.

For example, a short-term certificate in phlebotomy may help a student get a job and earn credits toward a certificate in medical assisting, which in turn, can be applied toward an associate degree in nursing, and up to a bachelor’s degree in nursing. But if the first and lowest step on the ladder is not eligible for financial aid, some students will not be able to reach it.

Adults must have a high school credential to be eligible for federal aid, regardless of their skills. That’s a huge barrier for many low-income adults, she writes.

Connected to the future

Senior Gerardo Lopez talks to Education Secretary Arne Duncan at San Francisco's Burton High School.

Senior Gerardo Lopez talks to Education Secretary Arne Duncan at San Francisco’s Burton High School.

Most students like Gerardo Lopez — Latinos and blacks from low-income and working-class families — enroll in community college, take a few remedial courses and drop out. They’ve been told they should go to college, but nobody’s told them what level of academic skills are necessary to pass college-level courses.

Many think any major will qualify them for a good job. They don’t know how the system works.

“Gerardo Lopez is preparing to turn his dreams into reality,” I write on Open Standard.

“Hands-on” learning opportunities drew Lopez, a Honduran immigrant, to the engineering academy at Phillip and Sala Burton Academic High School in San Francisco. “As a kid, I loved to make little cars, bringing parts together to make something come alive,” he says.

But he didn’t know engineering was a possible career. His father is a hotel janitor; his mother is a housewife.

Now a senior, he spends two days a week as an “extern” at an architectural firm. Lopez hopes to major in mechanical engineering – or perhaps architecture – at a University of California campus or Stanford. If he hadn’t signed up for the engineering academy, “I wouldn’t have known what I wanted to do with my life,” he said.

Burton offers “career academies” in engineering, health sciences and information technology, all high-demand fields. Students take college-prep and career-prep courses together, visit workplaces, do job shadows and compete for summer internships.

“Employers say they can’t find the skilled workers they need,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan told business and education leaders at Burton High last week. But CEOs aren’t talking to superintendents. “There’s a total disconnect.

Thirty-five percent of Burton High graduates enroll in four-year universities, said Principal Bill Kappenhagen. Another 43 percent go to community college and 22 percent go straight to the workforce.  The six-year graduation rate is high – 90 percent – for the four-year students, he said. But only 10 percent of those who go to City College of San Francisco graduate in six years.

What’s going wrong for the community college contingent? Some get bogged down in remedial courses or overwhelmed by work and job responsibilities. I’d guess many more would succeed if they aimed for a technical certificate or two-year vocational degree rather than taking general education courses.

“We’ve done a poor job of informing young people and their parents about the great jobs out there,” said Duncan. “It doesn’t have to be a college degree. There are six- or eight-week training programs that lead to great opportunities.”

Is sustainability still in bloom?

The sustainability fervor has cooled on campus, reports Community College Daily.

Community colleges developed job training programs in “green” energy.  However, some have been retooled when graduates couldn’t find jobs.

Colleges also retrofitted old buildings with energy-saving technology and built “green” buildings.

“I don’t think [green] has become less popular, but some other priorities have risen to the top,” says Todd Cohen, who directs the SEED Center, an effort by the American Association of Community Colleges to promote sustainability at the nation’s two-year career and technical colleges.

In a McGraw Hill survey in 2013, few colleges could evaluate the return on investment for “green” buildings.

Jill Biden touts job training

Community colleges are leaders in training students for careers in “green technology, health care, teaching and information technology,” said Jill Biden in a New Orleans speech. The vice president’s wife, an associate professor of English at Northern Virginia Community College, spoke at the Institute for Career Development’s 2014 National Conference.

Biden also advocated public-private partnerships to match job training with employers’ needs.

This week, the administration announced $450 million in grants to community colleges that are partnering with employers on job training.
While Biden was enthusiastic about the value of a community college education for students, she didn’t talk about how little their adjunct instructors are paid, writes Jed Lipinski in the Times-Picayune.

At Delgado Community College in New Orleans, adjuncts will wait seven weeks for their first meager paycheck, allegedly because Obamacare forced delays, the Times-Picayune reports.

Sam Ray, an adjunct instructor of Spanish, borrowed rent money from a friend. His department chair bought him groceries. Even when the check comes, it won’t be much. He earns $2,150 per course. A four-course load for the full school year comes to $17,200. It takes less than 30 hours a week to teach four courses, according to the college, so full-time adjuncts aren’t eligible for benefits.

Adjuncts become “freeway flyers.” John Mark Maust teaches three Spanish courses at Delgado’s West Bank campus, a fourth at the City Park campus, a fifth class at Nunez Community College and and a sixth at a private school. He’s “subsisting on peanut butter sandwiches” till his Delgado paycheck arrives.

As an adjunct at Northern Virginia, Jill Biden earned $42,500 to teach two remedial English courses per semester, reported Inside Higher Ed. A Delgado adjunct would earn $8,600 for the same courseload, writes Lipinski.

In 2012, as a full-time associate professor teaching a three-course load, Biden earned $82,000.

At Delgado, full-time professors teach five courses per semester.

Urban League collaborates on job training

Community colleges are working with the National Urban League on job training for lower-income adults, reports Community College Daily.

For example, Wichita Area Technical College (WATC) partners with the Urban League of Kansas on training for jobs as nursing assistants and home health aides. Ninety-five percent of graduates pass the state certification exam.

YouthBuild students learn construction skills at Monroe Community College.

YouthBuild students learn construction skills at Monroe Community College.

The Wayne County Community College District (WCCCD) has been working with the Urban League of Detroit and Southeastern Michigan since 2009 to train and employ laid-off workers. Students work about 20 hours a week at the college in clerical or computer jobs for a stipend paid by the Detroit Urban League. WCCD also helps them with resume writing, interviewing, networking and developing an employment plan.

The Urban League of Greater New Orleans  started working this fall with Delgado Community College and Nunez Community College  to provide dual-enrollment vocational classes for high school students.  Career pathways include industrial technology and maintenance, welding, oil and gas technology, and the construction trades.

Construction skills are the focus of a program for young high school dropouts in Rochester, New York. The Urban League of Rochester provides GED instruction and training in life skills and job readiness. Monroe Community College (MCC) instructors teach hands-on classes and YouthBuild teaches construction skills.

Students accepted into the program undergo two weeks of “mental toughness training” to gauge if they’re ready for a rigorous nine-month program, said Shelia James, ULR vice president for program planning. Once they complete what she calls a mini-boot camp, with an exercise routine led by a drill sergeant and motivational guest speakers, a panel interviews the participants and decides if they’re ready for YouthBuild.

There are 13 students learning entry-level carpentry in the current cohort, said Kathleen Alongi of MCC’s Economic and Workforce Development Center. The course also covers some electrical and plumbing basics, safety issues, power tools, construction materials and “construction math,” which deals with such topics as calculating cubic feet and reading blueprints, and employability skills, like the importance of showing up on time and how to behave at a worksite.

Students can earn a nationally recognized pre-apprenticeship certificate from the Home Builders Institute plus credentials in work readiness, safety and CPR. They gain experience by building houses for Habitat for Humanity and local construction companies.

U.S. lags in vocational credentials

Americans earn fewer vocational degrees than our competitors overseas, notes Kyla Calvert on PBS NewsHour. That’s the key to why the U.S. isn’t first in the world in college degrees.

U.S. Undersecretary of Education Ted Mitchell

U.S. Undersecretary of Education Ted Mitchell

“Yes, we lag our peers in helping adult students develop skills that are valued today and tomorrow in the market place,” responds U.S. Undersecretary of Education Ted Mitchell.  Technical colleges that help students earn vocational credentials have very high graduation and job placement rates, says Mitchell.

“These are not yesterday’s ‘voc ed’ programs, these are really high-tech training programs that also involve the 21st Century deeper learning skills of collaboration, problem-solving, creative thinking – the things that are needed all the way up and down the employment pipeline,” he says.

How do you balance innovation, such as competency-based credentials, with the need to ensure students are earning credentials that are valued in the labor market? asks Calvert.

That’s a problem with traditional education, too, answers Mitchell.

. . . competency-based education has an opportunity to shorten that cycle, because of the specificity of the competencies that students are learning, their attachment to very specific tasks or jobs in the marketplace and then feedback about whether students are learning those or not. It’s harder to do with a history major . . .

Is there a danger that these narrowly-focused credentials won’t hold their value as the marketplace changes?

There are two worries there. One is the old vocational worry, where you’re training people for yesterday’s job. And I think that with active participation of employers in the design of these programs, we’re getting employers who are looking five or 10 years out, not just looking to fill five sales positions tomorrow. . . . The second issue is that I think that we need to be careful that in modularizing or compartmentalizing some of these very specific competencies that we’re not losing the overall arc of higher education, which is a value that is transformative in lots of ways, not just the accumulation of skills.

The administration’s college ratings will “provide sensible, credible, clear information to families,” said Mitchell. The goal is to help families and the public understand how the college investment pays off.

Tech training is gateway to middle class

College should not be the only gateway to the middle class, writes Robert Reich, who was Bill Clinton’s secretary of Labor, in Salon.  Obsessed with bachelor’s degrees, “we’ve allowed vocational and technical education to be downgraded and denigrated,” he writes. But our economy needs skilled technicians.

As digital equipment replaces the jobs of routine workers and lower-level professionals, technicians are needed to install, monitor, repair, test, and upgrade all the equipment.

Hospital technicians are needed to monitor ever more complex equipment that now fills medical centers; office technicians, to fix the hardware and software responsible for much of the work that used to be done by secretaries and clerks.

Automobile technicians are in demand to repair the software that now powers our cars; manufacturing technicians, to upgrade the numerically controlled machines and 3-D printers that have replaced assembly lines; laboratory technicians, to install and test complex equipment for measuring results; telecommunications technicians, to install, upgrade, and repair the digital systems linking us to one another.

Community colleges train technicians at “bargain” prices, but they’re “systematically starved of funds,” writes Reich.  State legislators “direct most higher-education funding to four-year colleges and universities because that’s what their middle-class constituents want for their kids.”

Business “executives are usually the products of four-year liberal arts institutions and don’t know the value of community colleges,” he adds.

By contrast, Germany provides its students the alternative of a world-class technical education that’s kept the German economy at the forefront of precision manufacturing and applied technology.

The skills taught are based on industry standards, and courses are designed by businesses that need the graduates. So when young Germans get their degrees, jobs are waiting for them.

Young Germans choose a technical or academic track by age 14, writes Reich. Americans wouldn’t go for that.

But we could “combine the last year of high school with the first year of community college” to train technicians, writes Reich.  Employers “would help design the courses and promise jobs” to graduates. Late bloomers could pursue associate or bachelor’s degrees, if they choose.

North Carolina is adding five-year “early college” high schools, such as Wake Early College of Health and Sciences.  Students can graduate with a two-year degree or health science certificate.

IBM helped design New York City’s P-TECH, which adds two years of college-level job training to four years of high school.  IBM will hire graduates who want to go directly to the workforce.


P-TECH in Brooklyn fields a robotics team.

Mastery + modules = job training revolution

Online competency-based education is the most “disruptive” innovation in higher education, write Michelle R. Weise and Clayton M. Christensen in Hire Education.

Online competency-based providers create cost-effective, adaptable pathways to the workforce by breaking learning into competencies rather than courses, they write.

The fusion of modularization with mastery-based learning is the key to understanding how these providers can build a multitude of stackable credentials or programs for a wide variety of industries, scale them, and simultaneously drive down the cost of educating students for the opportunities at hand. These programs target a growing set of students who are looking for a different value proposition from higher education—one that centers on targeted and specific learning outcomes, tailored support, as well as identifiable skillsets that are portable and meaningful to employers. Moreover, they underscore the valuable role that employers can play in postsecondary education by creating a whole new value network that connects students directly with employers.

Strong partnerships between online competency-based providers and employers will become more important than college rankings and accreditation, Weise and Christensen predict.