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.

The college ladder is broken

College is supposed to be a ladder to the middle class, but it’s not working very well that way, writes New York Times columnist Frank Bruni. After watching a new documentary, Ivory Tower. he’s worried about social mobility.

“The good news is that more and more kids are going to college,” said Anthony Carnevale, the director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. “The bad news is that higher education is becoming more and more stratified.”

. . .  since 1994, 80 percent of the white young men and women in this country who have headed off to college have gone to schools ranked in the top 500 by Barron’s. But 75 percent of the black and Latino young men and women who have entered college over the same period have gone to two-year or open-admissions schools outside the top 500.

Graduation rates are low at unselective four-year colleges and community colleges.

College is worth the cost — usually

worthIs college worth it?  Two new reports provide different perspectives, writes Scott Carlson in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The “overeducated American” is a “myth,” states a new College Summit report. Workplace demand for college graduates is rising, according to Smart Shoppers: The End of the ‘College for All’ Debate?  College graduates earn 80 percent more than high school graduates, the report estimates. Even in jobs that don’t require a degree, more-educated workers earn significantly more.

However,  returns on the college investment have been exaggerated, concludes another new report, which focuses on higher education in California. The Economics of B.A. Ambivalence notes that most students take more than four years to complete a bachelor’s degree. In addition, some earn much less than others.

When the California Master Plan for Higher Education was enacted, in 1960, only 10 percent of Californians had a college degree, and the earnings gap between degree holders and non-degree holders was 35 percent. In 2010, they say, that earnings premium was 43 percent—higher than in the past, but still half the figure cited in the College Summit report. But, the researchers point out, the wage gap is higher now not because wages for college-degree holders have gone up, but because wages for people with only a high-school degree have gone down.

Graduating with burdensome debt is a higher risk, the researchers write.

College remains a good investment for the average California student and for American society. Nevertheless, it is true that more graduates now run the risk of not earning enough to make their investment in college worthwhile. This reality explains why many families of ordinary means are increasingly skeptical about paying for college.

“College is a ‘steppingstone’ to the middle class—not a ticket,” the authors warn. “It deserves the scrutiny an individual would give to any risky investment.”

They recommend better advising  and more loan-repayment options.

Adults who’ve left school without a degree ask: Is College Worth It for Me? But few look at graduation and default rates when they choose a postsecondary option, reports Public Agenda. And many don’t understand that for-profit higher education will be more expensive.

Job training also leads to the American Dream

“College for all” has become a curse, writes linguist John McWhorter in the New York Daily News. Young people are told the only way to a middle class life is a four-year degree, but vocational training also can lead to the American Dream, he writes.

There is nothing ignoble about finishing high school, spending a year learning how to fix heaters and air conditioners and going off to ply a trade and make a good living (i.e.. the one we know plumbers make when we pay their fees).

. . . Did the guy who installed your cable-TV service have a college degree? How many sound technicians, mechanics or building inspectors spent four years on a college campus? How about the person who did your ultrasound?

Complaining of a maze of federally funded job training programs, House Republicans have introduced the Supporting Knowledge and Investing in Lifelong Skills (SKILLS) Act to consolidate 35 federal employment and training programs into a single $6 billion Workforce Investment Fund.

New America: Redesign college aid

A “more understandable effective and fair” student aid system doesn’t need to cost taxpayers more money, concludes a New America Foundation report, Rebalancing Resources and Incentives in Federal Student Aid. The study was funded by the Gates Foundation’s Reimagining Aid Design and Delivery project.

To eliminate any future “funding cliffs,” Pell Grant funding should be guaranteed, turning it into a true entitlement, the report recommends. In addition, the maximum grant should be increased and year-round funding restored to help students complete degrees more quickly. The “ability to benefit” provision would be restored, opening the door to students who lack a high school diploma or GED.

All this would cost more money, but the report also calls for limiting Pell eligibility to 125 percent of program length to encourage students to move along. In addition, eliminating “the outdated Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant program that disproportionately benefits wealthy private institutions” would save money that could help fund Pell Grants.

The report proposes a Pell bonus for community colleges with a graduation and transfer rate of at least 50 percent. “Eligible schools could either use the additional money to reduce the net price they charge their neediest students or to create support programs to help low income students earn their degrees and transfer to four-year colleges.”

Other recommendations would redesign student loans and tax credits.

• Significantly simplifying the federal student loan system and reducing the dangers of default by requiring all borrowers to repay their debt based on a percentage of their earnings. Encouraging colleges to hold down their costs by eliminating both the Parent PLUS and Grad PLUS programs that currently allow for unlimited borrowing.

• Eliminating poorly targeted higher education tax benefits, such as the American Opportunity Tax Credit, in favor of direct aid for students.

The report also calls for strengthening accountability by “creating a federal student unit record system to provide a clearer picture of how students fare as they proceed through the educational system and into the workforce.”

Eligibility for federal student loans should be limited to 150 percent of program length to discourage prolonged enrollments, the report proposes.

Borrowers who turn to private student loans should be able to declare bankruptcy, if necessary, to clear their debts.

While the report is “wonderful and thought-provoking,” Community College Dean questions whether students can finish a two-year degree in 2 1/2 years. Very few do. Setting a tight time limit would make it hard to offer “stackable” certificates or integrate developmental instruction in mainstream courses, he adds.

Then there’s the political challenge. Capping student loans and eliminating tuition tax deductions to pay for Pell could alienate middle-class voters, he warns. “Once the middle class decides that a program is really just for the poor, that program tends to wither on the vine.”

Community college raises odds of 4-year degree

Enrolling in community college increase students’ chances of earning a bachelor’s degree, concludes a new study. Jennie E. Brand, a professor of sociology at UCLA, analyzed the choices of Chicago public high school graduates. Most didn’t make it all the way: Only 11 percent completed a bachelor’s degree in six years. But community college helped most students and hurt only the most academically prepared.

Some believe community college is a dead end for students who could have started at a four-year institution, notes Inside Higher Ed.  An influential book, Crossing the Finish Line, argues these students are “undermatched” at community colleges.

But the new study found that for the vast majority of students, the alternative to attending community college is not enrolling at a four-year institution, but not to attend college at all.

There is some undermatching for more academically prepared students, who otherwise would have been likely to attend four-year colleges, according to the research. But that group was small in the study’s Chicago sample.

Community colleges “open doors for some people and close doors for others,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a University of Wisconsin sociology professor. For disadvantaged students, community college may be the only realistic option, she said.

The study found that disadvantaged students, who would otherwise not have attended college, are 93 percent more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree if they enroll in a two-year institution. But students who fit the profile for attending a four-year institution and instead enroll in a community college will indeed hurt their odds of earning a bachelor’s degree, according to the study.

Well-prepared middle-class students should think twice about starting at a community college, the study found. They will be more likely to complete a degree if they start at the four-year level.

Few middle-class students start at community colleges, but rising college costs and lingering recession may change that, Brand said

Obama: Election will shape economy

Government action is needed to lift the economy, said President Obama in a campaign speech at  Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland.

“There is one place I stand in complete agreement with Mr. Romney,” Mr. Obama said. “This election is about our economic future.”

. . . he called the election “the make-or-break moment for America’s middle class,” insisting that his economic proposals that call for investing in programs to help the middle class must “be our North Star.”

Speaking at a small manufacturing plant in Cincinnati, Mitt Romney delivered a “prebuttal” of Obama’s speech. “Don’t forget, he’s been president for three and a half years. And talk is cheap. Actions speak very loud,” Romney said. “If you want to see the results of his economic policy, look around Ohio, look around the country.”


CC coalition focuses on ‘middle-class’ skills

Rebuilding America’s Middle Class, a coalition of community colleges, met in Indianapolis last week to discuss workforce development policies, affordability and removing regulatory barriers to training community college students for jobs.

“We face a defining moment for America’s future – one that will determine just how committed we are to providing everyone a shot at the American Dream and the middle class,” said Glenn DuBois, chancellor of Virginia’s Community Colleges and founding member of RAMC.

America’s community colleges provide a pathway to the middle class at a much lower cost than their four-year counterparts, the coalition points out. Students can complete a professional certificate in one to two semesters for $1,500 to $4,000 or a two-year degree for $7,000 to $8,000. An associate degree in nursing, with training time in a clinical setting, averages $10,000. That’s less than half what students pay at state universities.

In a keynote speech, Lumina’s Jamie Merisotis reaffirmed the foundation’s commitment to its “big goal” of raising the number of Americans with high-value college credentials and degrees from 40 percent now to 60 percent by 2025.

Community colleges . . . can be the exemplars for change in the system as a whole. And change is certainly needed.

Without question, this nation needs a more productive higher-ed system—one that enables institutions to meet each student where he or she is and provide the support each student needs to succeed. We need a system that ensures quality by fostering genuine learning, not mere program completion … a system that truly prepares students for work—and for life—in an increasingly global society.

Such a system would allow students to accumulate credits from different institutions over several years to earn a degree, minimizing waste and duplicative learning. It would acknowledge and credit prior learning—skills developed through work or military service and which often reflect a student’s abilities as well as or even better than earning classroom credit. It would also be far more focused on the needs of students and less on the needs of higher education institutions.

And it’s critically important that the system be designed to serve today’s students—the ever-growing number of low-income, first-generation, minority and adult students who constitute the “real world” on campuses and in classrooms these days. To reach the Big Goal, America needs all types of students to succeed, and they must succeed in far greater numbers. That means we need a student-centered system—one that is flexible, accessible, accountable and committed to quality.

Almost all of today’s jobs are high-skilled jobs, Merisotis said.
Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels also spoke at the conference. Indiana’s Ivy Tech and other community colleges  “lift somebody’s life prospects as much or more per dollar as the traditional four-year schools as they’ve gotten so expensive.”

Community colleges draw more young, middle-class students

Community colleges will become “separate and unequal” unless they recruit more middle-class students, argues a Century Foundation task force.

In hard times, middle-class families are taking a second look at low-cost community colleges. Nationwide, 22 percent of college students with family incomes over $100,000 attended community colleges last year, up from 16 percent four years ago, according to Sallie Mae.

Younger, wealthier students demand more from community colleges, reports Inside Higher Ed.

“Community college gradually is gaining wider acceptance as the default option out of high school,” said Stephen G. Katsinas, director of the University of Alabama’s Education Policy Center.

Relatively affluent young students are typically better-prepared academically and have a good chance of earning a degree. They are also more likely to attend full-time, require less remediation than their peers and can be cheaper for community colleges to educate.

But this group is also demanding, as traditional-age students want a full campus experience with amenities like fitness centers and extracurricular activities, which can mean new buildings and strained student service budgets. They are also more likely to seek out counselors, experts said.

Raritan Valley Community College in suburban New Jersey is seeing a surge of young, middle-class students who plan to earn bachelor’s degrees. The college remodeled the cafeteria, expanded the fitness center and started planning a new student life and leadership center.

The increase in full-time students paying full-time tuition — usually for less-expensive general education courses — has helped offset the costs.

The rise in middle-class students seeking academic classes is good for low-income and career-tech students, writes Community College Dean. When the Great Recession raised enrollment, his college saw some displaced workers and many 18-year-olds who would have started at four-year colleges in better times.

The well-intended political leaders who are looking at cc’s as training centers should be careful what they wish for. The vocational programs we run are generally far more expensive to run than the classic liberal arts classes; they require specialized equipment and facilities, for starters, and the class sizes tend to run lower. A dirty little secret of higher ed finance is that certain disciplines – the chalk-and-talk liberal arts classes, mostly – subsidize higher-cost disciplines. All those full-to-the-brim psych classes help pay for the small and expensive nursing clinicals. Take away the psych classes, and the college’s per-student costs will skyrocket.

When privileged students demand the services that “real” colleges offer, then single moms will have access to those services too, the dean writes.

Obama shifts higher ed policy

President Obama’s higher education plan represents a policy shift away from low-income students and toward the middle class, writes Inside Higher Ed.

“They’re sending a strong signal about where the second Obama administration, if we have one, is likely to go,” said Kevin Carey, policy director at Education Sector, a think tank. “They’re not going to just keep putting millions of dollars into the Pell Grant Program and letting the chips fall where they may.”

Expanding Pell Grants would do more to make college accessible, said Sara Goldrick-Rab, an associate professor of higher education policy at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

“I don’t have high hopes for [the new plan] being very effective in helping him achieve what I thought his goal was, which is getting more students from low-income families to be college graduates,” Goldrick-Rab said, describing the plan as “a little all over the place.”

“This is going to cause problems for the institutions that have the least resources to begin with.”

Judging whether a college provides “good value” is complex, writes Robert Sternberg, provost of Oklahoma State, in an open letter to the president.

Open-admissions colleges with many disadvantaged students won’t have the same graduation rates as elite institutions, he writes. “Over-focusing on completion can lead one to disregard the important issue of whether the education being completed is of the best quality our institutions of higher learning can provide.”

In addition, job preparation isn’t the only mission of colleges, Sternberg writes.

Rising tuition isn’t the biggest scandal in higher education, writes Jonathan Zimmerman, an NYU education and history professor, in the Los Angeles Times. It’s college’s failure to figure out whether students are learning. “Millions of American students and their families are mortgaging their futures to pay for a college education. We owe them an honest account of what they’re getting in return: not just what it costs, or where it will take them, but what it means.”