Make America’s workforce great again by revamping education


If the stormy presidential election created consensus on just one thing, it’s that this country needs a new approach to developing workforce skills and improving the earnings prospects of working class citizens. This will require much more than one or two new programs or tax credits. The current education and training system, in particular, provides too few aspiring workers with the skills necessary to fill today’s jobs.

Employers of all sizes and across a wide variety of industries were complaining about a shortage of applicants well before the unemployment rate dipped to the current 4.6 percent. Monthly job postings now exceed monthly hires, a historical anomaly that suggests the labor market has “stocked out” of certain types of workers.

This is not merely a matter of quantity. It’s a matter of skills. Research as part of Harvard Business School’s U.S. Competitiveness Project indicates that more than 50 percent of employers find it difficult to recruit workers with needed skills—a shortage that extends to college graduates as well.

Nearly 60 percent of entry-level, college-educated hires required some degree of improvement to become productive, and more than 70 percent were deficient in such fundamental skills as oral communications, working with numbers, or analyzing and solving complex problems, according to a 2015 survey of employers undertaken for the American Association of Colleges and Universities.

Here are four steps that Donald Trump’s administration should undertake to bring innovation to post-secondary education and revitalize the workforce in America.

Broaden the reach of Pell Grants

Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965 governs where federally supported student loans and grants, such as Pell Grants for students from low-income households, can be used. The act restricts their use to accredited institutions and stipulates that these institutions must provide at least 50 percent of the instruction. This cumbersome and archaic process inhibits the entry of new and innovative models of education.

{mosads}One program the administration should consider scaling immediately is the Department of Education’s Employment Quality Through Innovation Partnership (EQUIP). A pilot program launched this year, it allows students to use Title IV funding to enroll in programs offered by accredited institutions through a contract with “non-traditional education providers.” The non-traditional provider furnishes the curriculum and instruction that can exceed the 50 percent rule. A designated quality assurance entity (QAE) reviews and monitors the programs and their results.

Among the eight pilots now underway, General Electric is working with Massachusetts’ Northeastern University in a program on advanced manufacturing, while coding boot camp Epicodus is involved with Oregon’s Marylhurst University on a certificate program for web and mobile applications developers.

Require full disclosure of graduation rates

Although information available to students applying to post-secondary institutions accredited under Title IV is rich on subjects like available programs, extracurricular activities and facilities, most institutions are mute on what should matter most—outcomes. Perhaps the most important statistic should be an institution’s graduation rate.

Sixty-five percent of high school graduates enroll in some post-secondary institution at some point, but only half of those ever earn a degree. The graduation rate for four-year colleges within six years of commencement is less than 60 percent, while the graduation rate within three years for two-year associate degree programs is less than 30 percent, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Those numbers are even worse for low-income and minority students.

Unfortunately, none of these data are readily available to applicants. Nor is such important information as average student debt incurred and loan delinquency rates, the percentage of graduates who are employed and in what timeframe, or the percentage of graduates employed in their field of study. Aspiring students and their families would make much wiser decisions if those numbers were available.

Overhaul the apprenticeship system  

The United States trails many developed nations, including the United Kingdom, Germany and Switzerland, in its use of apprenticeships, despite their generating the highest return of any type of workforce training program, according to a recent study by the Center for American Progress. Such “earn and learn” models will also help students stay in school because they can afford to. To improve the system, the incoming administration should greatly reduce the complexity of registering new apprenticeships, provide direct incentives to states to harmonize their programs around a single national standard, allow students to use Title IV grants to finance registered apprenticeships, and provide employers of all sizes with incentives to implement programs.

Modernize institutional accreditation

The federal government relies heavily on some forty agencies to accredit institutions under Title IV. The process does not focus on the output of the system, which are career-ready graduates. Instead, it focuses on inputs such as curriculum, facilities, admission rates and faculty credentials. Those may be relevant bases for evaluating traditional institutions, but they will fade in importance in the emerging world of massive open online courses (MOOCs), boot camps and partnership initiatives.

The accreditation industry is ill-equipped to act as the gatekeeper for the types of post-secondary institutions we ought to be empowering. Moreover, it suffers from the same conflict of interest that has plagued the credit rating agencies: They are paid by the institutions they accredit. Thus, it’s in their best interest to sustain the current model rather than preside over its transformation. The Trump administration should launch a top-to-bottom review of accreditation, perhaps by empaneling a blue ribbon commission of academic, business and political leaders.

Making America’s workforce great again is possible, but it will take a willingness to disrupt the increasingly sclerotic post-secondary education cartel. Hopefully, Trump can add these recommendations to his to-do list during the early days of his presidency.

Joseph B. Fuller is a professor of management practice at Harvard Business School. He is the co-author of Bridge the Gap: Rebuilding America’s Middle Skills, a report issued as part of the school’s U.S. Competitiveness Project.

The views of Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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