House passes SKILLS Act

A Republican bill to streamline federal job training programs passed the House last week, but the Supporting Knowledge and Investing in Lifelong Skills (SKILLS) Act faces strong opposition from congressional Democrats and the Obama administration. Both complain the bill doesn’t guarantee that low-income people are first in line for job training.

House GOP leaders promoted the SKILLS Act, which would reauthorize the Workforce Investment Act (WIA),  in a visit to the automotive skills training program at Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA), reports Community College Times.

The SKILLS Act would eliminate or streamline 35 “ineffective and duplicative programs,” according to GOP leaders, and create a flexible WIA fund to serve as a single source of support for workers, employers and job seekers. Democrats, however, are concerned that would mean less funding for job training at a time when more is needed.

The bill’s chief sponsor, Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), a former president of Mayland Community College in North Carolina, said the SKILLS Act would “unravel the complicated mess” that the American workforce development system has become and streamline it.

​Noting that the nation is spending $18 billion on these programs, Fox said the SKILLS Act can achieve better results with less money. Providing more control at the local level is “extraordinarily important,” she said, because “the suits in Washington” don’t understand local needs.

Only 14 percent of would-be workers receive the job training they need, said Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), chairman of the Committee on Education and the Workforce and a co-sponsor. People get “lost in the maze,” he said. “Our bill empowers community colleges to get people the skills they need to go to work,” he said.

Rep. Susan Brooks (R-Ind.), formerly an executive at Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana, said the SKILLS Act would let local workforce investment boards (WIBs) funnel more funding to “priority providers,” such as community colleges. Local boards could contract with community colleges to provide training to large groups of participants rather than funding individual job seekers.

The American Association of Community Colleges supports greater flexibility, but is concerned about some provisions, wrote President Walter Bumphus in a letter to Kline and Foxx. The letter was co-signed by the Association for Community College Trustees. Both groups called for prioritizing training for low-income people.

Protecting Pell leads ACCT priorities

Maintaining Pell Grants and restoring Pell eligibility for “ability to benefit” (no high school diploma or GED) students seeking job training lead the Association of Community College Trustees’ top legislative priorities for 2013, the National Legislative Summit decided.

To help students train for skilled jobs, the ACCT called for preserving the Community College and Career Training Grant Program (TAACCCT),  the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act and the Workforce Investment Act.

Investments in direct institutional aid to colleges that serve disproportionate numbers of minority, low-income and first-generation college students are  critical. Congress should continue its support for the Strengthening Institutions, Developing Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs), Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander Serving Institutions, Tribal Colleges, and Predominately Black Institutions (PBIs) programs.

ACCT also endorsed the National Science Foundation’s Advanced Technological Education (ATE) program, which supports science, engineering and math programs at community colleges. “Programs are developed in conjunction with businesses in nanotechnology, alternative energy, advanced manufacturing, and many other critical fields.”

How to reform Pell and help neediest students

Once a sacred cow, Pell Grants now face cuts, writes Andrew Rotherham in Time. The program is very expensive and growing rapidly.

Pell grants are being scrutinized because taxpayers now spend more money on them — $36 billion this year, up from $14 billion in 2007 — than on entire federal agencies. Almost half of all college students currently receive some Pell grant assistance, ranging from $555 to $5,550, based on their financial need. In July, Congress is tightening the purse strings by reducing the number of semesters a student can receive a Pell grant (to 12, down from 18) and, most controversially, lowering the household income level that determines which students’ families are not required to contribute any money for their college education. That threshold is dropping from $32,000 to $23,000.

Broader changes are needed to make Pell “more beneficial and effective,” Rotherham argues. One option is to front-load grants, giving more aid early in a student’s career.  More students could avoid borrowing till they get close to a degree — which many will not. This would help community college students especially.

Other ideas also would help community college students, who tend to come from low- and moderate-income families.

Focus more on the poorest students. On one level it’s great that Pell grants are now touching so many students, but the program arguably should be focused most on low-income Americans and able to give them grants far larger than the $5,500 maximum today. In a country where only 8% of low-income students earn a four-year college degree by age 24 (compared with three in four affluent students), poorer kids should be Pell’s top priority. . . . Stephen Burd, a higher education analyst at Education Sector, suggests conditioning extra aid to colleges based on a high-enrollment of Pell recipients.

Reward colleges for graduating Pell recipients.  Colleges and universities don’t have much skin in the game when it comes to federal aid. It’s one of several reasons college costs continue to rise. Higher education analyst Art Hauptman suggests conditioning some aid on graduation rates for Pell Grant recipients.

Rotherham also suggests further simplifying FAFSA, the financial aid application form.

In 2009 the online version started including some performance information about schools to at least signal to students that they should think about the quality of the degree they’d be getting at these places. . . . Using tax return data like the standard 1040 form, augmented with a few additional education-specific questions such as how many schools a student is applying to, would accomplish the same goals and be a lot more user-friendly.

The Education Department hasn’t tracked success rates for Pell Grant recipients. Doing so could be embarrassing, but I don’t see how Pell can be reformed without information on what’s working and what isn’t to help needy students complete a useful college credential.

Students choose lower-cost colleges

Families spent 9 percent less on college last year, according to a new Sallie Mae study. Spending had been going up each year, despite the recession, but more parents say they’re asking their children to choose lower-cost colleges, live at home or attend part-time.

Twenty-two percent of students from high-income families started at community colleges, up from only 12 percent the year before.  Thirty-seven percent live at home.

While 51 percent of parents were “willing to stretch” financially to send a child to college, that’s down from 64 percent in 2010.

The rise in low-income college students may be explained by families falling out of the middle class, writes Daniel Luzer on College, Inc.

The steepest decline in college spending came among upper-income families, those earning six-figure incomes, whose average outlay declined from $31,245 in the 2010 academic year to $25,760 in 2011.

Low-income families (earning $35,000 or less) reported increased college spending, from $17,404 in 2010 to $19,888 in 2011. That is a counter-intuitive finding, given the massive increase in need-based aid of recent years. The report suggests the increase could simply reflect that a broader share of survey respondents have low incomes.

Grants and scholarships cover 33 percent of all college spending, up from 23 percent a year ago. Forty-six percent of families receive grants, up from 30 percent in a single year.  Nearly half of middle-income families received grant aid.

Though Americans are wary of college spending, 90 percent of students say college is an investment in the future.

The share of families who “strongly agreed” with the statement that college is essential for earning (as opposed to learning) rose from 59 percent in 2010 to 70 percent in 2011.

. . . The share of students who said their primary motive for college was to earn more money rose sharply, a one-year jump from 61 percent to 75 percent.

Average percentage of total cost of attendance paid from each source:

 

To educate strivers, improve community colleges

Affirmative action for low-income students won’t make much difference at selective universities, even in combination with race- and ethnicity-based preferences, argue Anthony Carnevale and Jeff Strohl of Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce in Rewarding Strivers: Helping Low-Income Students Succeed in College, Instead, strengthen the quality of the schools low-income and minority students attend, “two-year schools and lower-end four-year colleges,” Carnevale tells Inside Higher Education.

. . . most of the action will be up to the states, as they consider rewriting funding formulas to reward institutions based on performance (enrolling and graduating low-income students, etc.), bolstering student services programs at community colleges, and encouraging students to get educated at institutions that cost less, but still have high quality.

“Instead of continuing to struggle to move more students into selective colleges where the high-priced quality programs reside, we may be more successful moving money and quality programs to the community colleges where most of our students reside,” he and Strohl write . . .

The higher education system operates as an “engine of inequality,” Carnevale said. Funding disproportionately goes to selective universities that enroll few low-income students, while community colleges and unselective four-year schools that educate the neediest students get the least money.

Minnesota pushes dual credits for at-risk students

Minnesota pioneered dual-credit programs to let high school students take college classes. After 25 years, the average dual-credit student is white, middle-class, female and academically strong, reports the MinnPost.com.

The state is trying to involve more minority,  low-income and at-risk students. Minnesota plans to use online courses to expand access, especially in rural areas, says Karen Klinzing, assistant commissioner of education.  Technical and community colleges are working with high schools on articulation agreements.

An example is preparing students for the heavy technical reading required in a two-year auto mechanics program.

“One of the things a student is going to encounter … is the auto mechanics manual, which demands the highest level of reading ability of any other technical reading that we can find in the occupations,” Klinzing said, adding that “students who might have been tracking toward becoming an auto mechanic may not have much instruction in technical reading.”

MinnPost.com looks at five students who got a jump on college through dual-credit programs in Minnesota, Oregon and Chicago.