Today, I awoke to read Andrew Kreighbaum’s Insider Higher Education article about the potential Jobs Act legislation. He quotes Senator Kaine (co-sponsor of the bill) here:
We need to broaden our definition of higher education to include quality career and technical programs, and we have to make sure that federal policy supports this kind of learning, too,” Kaine said in a statement. “So the idea behind the JOBS Act is to be more flexible with Pell Grants and allow students to use them for high-quality career and technical classes if they want to.
I applaud the impulse to fund career training, but I would like to suggest that we do it with some other fund, so we stop evaluating college education through the same lens as career training. Don’t broaden the definition of higher education, separate the realms.
Let me be clear, I am all for job training. I think, however, we need to be very honest about what job training does and does not do. First, job training is narrowly focused, generally in service to a particular sector of the economy. It does not usually foster transferrable skills. Second, the wages for these jobs tend to stagnate quickly because they focus on entry-level skills. Most advancement will mean more training. Third, training isn’t college. A college education is designed for a broad focus on the habits of mind that support life-long learning.
While there are lots of direct career connections in college (nursing, education, accounting, chemistry, for example), they are couched in liberal arts thinking, preparing graduates to change course as their interests or job opportunities change. Training just doesn’t do this. When we equate the two, we end up with a lot of guidelines and comparisons that don’t actually fit together. To put it simply, asking if I am prepared for a particular employment (welding, for example) is fundamentally different from asking if I am prepared to navigate the changing world of work.
There’s so much more to say on this, but today I am focused on this funding idea. We should fund job training. It is an important part of supporting economic mobility in the United States. We see wonderful examples of this in our vocational high schools. These schools ensure that graduates have essential skills if they want to progress to higher education (typical writing and math education), but also support direct career pathways. Many such schools offer training in carpentry, plumbing, cosmetology, culinary skills and more recently, computer science and even advanced manufacturing. These are great opportunities and we should fund them. Don’t use Pell, just fund the high schools appropriately.
For community colleges things get more murky. Community colleges have been developed to support two different goals – job training and pathways to two- and four-year college degrees. In as much as community college is meant to serve anyone above the high school level, it is post-secondary education, but it is not all a college education. The very narrowly focused job training (mostly certificates) is just that, job training. This job training is not meant to serve as a pathway to a four year degree. It is directly related to potential employment. It is meant to broaden opportunity, but not necessarily form broad habits of mind.
Like our vocational high schools, these pathways to employment are very important. People often have to re-tool at difficult moments or in ways they never expected. We should support those opportunities, so let’s fund this, too, but not with Pell grants or student loans. We need a career training fund (perhaps supplemented by the industries who want particular skills). Having a separate funding line reminds us that this is not preparation for life-long learning, it is preparation for entry-level earning. When someone wants to move to the life-long learning part, then they should move to Pell.
Now here’s where it gets very confusing. In higher education, we have been creating two year degrees with “stackable credentials.” In this scenario a person might start in a culinary program then move to an associates degree in culinary arts that might even transfer to a four year degree at some point. The degree will have started with a certificate in culinary skills of some kind and then progress to include science, math, writing, social sciences, etc., all of which will add up to something we call a college education. Separating the funding for part 1 (the job training) and then switching for part 2 (the college education) will be a nightmare for community colleges. They will have to switch funding streams as students progress in the program, but as my colleagues at community colleges know very well, students do not necessary take a straight path from one area to another. Still, I think we need to make this effort so we can be clear about the experiences and outcomes expected in each path.
And there is one more thing for us to consider in this blurring of lines between training and college education. If we accept the notion of the stackable credential, such that college education includes the training programs, we need to reimagine the definition of “college credit.” Here’s what I mean: when we decide that there is room in a Bachelor of Arts degree for a bunch of courses that will simply count as electives (because they aren’t things that a university would ever offer), but include them in the credits toward earning a degree (because we want to value students’ prior experiences), we’ve basically called our own bluff. What we’re saying is that we don’t really think the full liberal arts experience is important. We’ve allowed something else to stand in for 1/4 of the degree credits (roughly equivalent to the credits carried by many certificates). If that’s the case, well, it’s time for us to examine our assumptions about the whole enterprise.
Training and college education are not the same. Yet, as we continuously look for new ways to fund access to both of them, we have blurred the distinctions between the two, creating false equivalencies. There is lots of room for us to re-consider our assumptions about what qualifies for college credit, and we probably should do some deep thinking about this, but even so they are not the same. Making everything the same upends all of the ways in which we might evaluate the goals of training or college education. So, let’s fund them both as the separate things that they are, and then get busy with questioning the structure of the whole enterprise.