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.