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Over half of higher ed is vocational
But aid programs stuck in traditional model
Tech School
Aid programs, policy analyst Mary Alice McCarthy argues, are left over from an era when workers could earn a good living as a machinist, an auto mechanic or an air conditioning technician right out of high school -- and higher education was the exception, not the norm. - photo by

Suppose your child wants to become a medical assistant in Michigan, one of the people who keeps the office moving, administers tests, draws blood and manages paperwork.

To get that job, she will face a dizzying set of options.

One option? A private for-profit college that would give her a certificate after she spent 10 months and $20,000 in tuition. Or she could go to a community college for six months and pay $7,500, and get the same job or better.

Over 20 schools in Michigan offer medical assistant certificates, and those two options are only the beginning. After considering all your choices for a medical assistant career, you might just need therapy.

No wonder a recent study finds American higher education to be a “minefield full of dead-ends, trapdoors and false promises.”

“One hurdle facing kids leaving high school is that we offer little useful information on pathways between career programs and jobs,” said Mary Alice McCarthy, author of the report and a policy analyst at the New America Foundation, a Washington, D.C., based think tank.

But that’s just part of the problem, McCarthy argues. Another is that our post-secondary education system was designed for four-year bachelor’s degrees, even though over a third of today’s post-secondary students complete vocational programs.

“The policies we have that help people go to college aren’t designed to help people get jobs,” McCarthy said. “The truth is we don’t really have a job training program. Our higher education policies are not designed to support quick transitions back into the labor market.”

Our programs, she argues, are left over from an era when workers could earn a good living as a machinist, an auto mechanic or an air conditioning technician right out of high school -- and higher education was the exception, not the norm.

Careers that formerly would have been learned on the job today such as auto mechanics or air conditioning technicians now require advanced training and certification. But that training is squeezed into a system designed mainly to teach liberal arts students, McCarthy argues.

If you pick the right program at a community college, you can do very well, McCarthy says, but that means picking the right major at the right school, which is easier said than done.

“Too often, McCarthy said, “people do not pick the best program and end up with an AA in a liberal studies program and no connection to the job market.”

The ramshackle system, McCarthy argues, has created several “gaps” that trip up unsuspecting students, all of which could be addressed by changing how we finance education and share information about programs and outcomes.

Accidental system

Critics of the current post-secondary workforce training system argue that it’s misshapen because it emerged accidentally.

As good manufacturing jobs disappeared and technological complexity gradually penetrated even seemingly simple jobs, post-secondary education became a near necessity, says Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

In the 1970s, Carnevale said, 70 percent of workers had a high school degree or less and most of them were middle class. Most skills were learned on the job.

As recently as 1983, he said, the “wage premium” offered by post-secondary education after high school was just 39 percent, meaning that college graduates earned that much more than high school graduates.

Today, the wage premium for post-secondary training or a college degree is 84 percent. That is to say, students who stop with a high school diploma are likely to remain stuck in a lower wage universe their entire adulthood.

“The person who unloads the truck now has to have some training in logistics and inventory systems,” Carnevale said. “You don’t become an auto mechanic any longer by getting a dirty rag and hanging out with your uncle.”

But our job training system was never rebuilt to reflect the now-pervasive requirements for advanced training, Carnevale said. People continue to think that the next step after high school is college, and too little attention is paid to the critical role that technical training and certification plays in our job system.

Quality assurance

One of McCarthy’s chief critiques of American post-secondary education is that the accreditation agencies -- which validate a program for employers and make it eligible for federal student loans -- certify schools rather than programs. McCarthy said this creates a blind spot for students, who can’t know the likely outcomes of tackling a particular major in an otherwise respectable school.

Another problem with accreditation, she adds, is that the system focuses on inputs, like library size and curriculum, rather than on outputs, like loan defaults, employment rates and earnings.

“Our certification program is entirely focused on what happens in school, rather than what happens after school,” McCarthy said. “If you were to design a system for workforce development, you would want to know what happens to people after they leave.”

The result of these two gaps, McCarthy says, is that students are brought to an “accredited” school and offered a maze without a map, with programs that offer poor job prospects listed alongside very promising ones, but no transparency helping the student see which is which.

As a result, some of the best career options available to a community college student are hidden in the shrubbery, says Carnevale. “If you take a program at a community college in heating, ventilation and air conditioning, you won’t get a degree,” Carnevale says, “but you will earn more than virtually anyone who earns an associate’s degree.”

Workers who hold one-year certificates now earn more than many who hold four-year degrees, Carnevale says, and about one third of associate’s degree recipients now earn more than the average bachelor’s degree holder.

In the old days, higher education institutions assumed that students would get a good education and find their way into a career. That is much less true today, McCarthy says.

Time vs. learning

McCarthy also objects that our post-secondary education system is skewed toward “seat time” over actual learning. Federal loans and Pell grants are tied to the “semester” model, for example, rather than focusing on skills acquired and competency for work requirements.

McCarthy cites programs that have tried to circumvent these constraints. Texas State Technical College, a state school with multiple campuses around the Lone Star State, has piloted a “competency-based” program that works with Texas-based manufacturers to certify workers for technically challenging and in-demand factory jobs as fast as they can acquire the skills.

But getting the federal government to back the program with loans and Pell grants remains a hurdle, McCarthy notes. And without such support, the students who need it most will not be able to afford it.

Most student aid support comes through a federal program built for a four-year residential campus experience, McCarthy argues, even though the vast majority of post-secondary students now balance work and school, and many don’t need or want four-year degrees.

“These students are invisible to the system,” McCarthy said.

One thing that could help these students is “stackable credentials,” McCarthy said. A student could get certified in phlebotomy, qualifying them to draw blood, for example, and then get a medical assisting certificate on his way to a degree in nursing.

“Stackable credentials put in shorter steps, with more rungs in the ladder,” McCarthy said, “allowing students to combine work and learning on a career path.”

According to Holzer, the changes McCarthy calls for would “rationalize the system, make it more responsive to the labor market and give disadvantaged students better opportunities.”

Big data

One answer to much of this confusion, many experts agree, is to take advantage of readily available data using Social Security and unemployment insurance data.

While some argue that the data cannot be used due to privacy concerns, McCarthy and Carnevale dismiss this argument.

Social Security employment and earnings data is routinely used in all kinds of social science research, Carnevale said, with the actual identities and private information always removed before the data is given to researchers.

Using this data to track education and earnings outcomes could be easily done without compromising privacy in any way, Carnevale said. The same data is routinely collected to calculate economic and unemployment issues.

That data could be easily accessed to track earnings and employment data for graduates of specific degree programs. The real impediment, McCarthy says, is that the higher education lobby itself is nervous about what would happen when transparency is achieved.

“The data is all right there,” McCarthy said. “And I would say that the reasons we are not is that certain vested interests do not want that data to come out.”

The data is of great interest not only to students, but also to state policymakers, who have to decide where to put limited higher education resources, McCarthy notes.

Some states are already doing this very well, McCarthy notes. California has a system called “Salary Surfer,” which follows students from community colleges into the labor market, and allows students to see what happens to those who complete a given program.

Just the data transparency alone “would transform higher education,” McCarthy said.