Career/Tech Education

DeVos Issues Final Repeal of Gainful Employment

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Friday issued the final repeal of regulations crafted by the Obama administration to hold low-quality career education programs accountable.

The rule, known as gainful employment, was heavily criticized by the for-profit college sector and Republicans in Congress. In the first gainful-employment ratings released in 2017, 98 percent of programs that failed the standards were operated by for-profit institutions.

The Education Department estimated that repealing the rule would cost $6.2 billion over 10 years in payments for Pell Grants and student loans for programs that otherwise would have been cut off from federal aid.

Critics complained that gainful employment, which sought to penalize programs that produced too many graduates with unmanageable student debt, discriminated against programs based on their tax status. DeVos said overhauling the rule was one of her first priorities as secretary. Eventually she proposed repealing the rule entirely, but that process has been delayed by bureaucratic hurdles at the department.

DeVos was required to convene a negotiated rule-making panel, including industry representatives and consumer groups, which failed to produce a new rule. After she subsequently issued a proposal to rescind gainful employment entirely, the department received tens of thousands of public comments it had to review before final repeal. A Trump administration official subsequently said the department would fail to meet a deadline to repeal the rule last November. That meant the earliest the rule could be repealed is July 2020.

The Education Department has taken few steps to enforce the rule since 2017. And consumer groups and Democrats in Congress were quick to criticize the latest step by DeVos to roll back higher ed regulations. Representative Bobby Scott, the chairman of the House education committee, said in a statement that repealing rather than revising the regulations "will prop up low-quality for-profit colleges at the expense of students and taxpayers."

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A father explains why he supports his daughter's participation in a career and technical education program (opinion)

In the fall my 13-year-old daughter began high school, where she is enrolled in a career and technical education program -- or a CTE program, formerly known as vocational education or voc-ed. She is interested in the sciences and loves mysteries. Her program has projects that blend forensics, chemistry, physics and biology. If all goes as planned, she will graduate from high school with a certification as a laboratory technician and some college credit from dual-enrollment courses, as well as her high school diploma.

When she graduates, Layla will immediately be able to earn about $40,000 a year as a lab technician. She will be positioned to join the labor market, complete an associate’s degree or pursue a four-year degree. She will require fewer courses (less cash out of my pockets) and will be able to compete with other college students for coveted lab or research opportunities. Not a bad deal.

As an African American, first-generation college graduate, I have slowly come to recognize the competitive advantage that a lab tech CTE program will provide my daughter. I had my reservations, based on the history of African Americans and vocational education, but could not argue with the outcomes or options. I believe the time has come for black students and college administrators to reconsider the value of CTE as a viable career pathway and untapped source of diverse students, respectively.

Many minority communities are leery of vocational education and the pathways message -- and for good reason. Vocational education was once used as an instrument for tracking by “ability.” It was considered the dumping ground for students that were believed to be unsuited for academic course work. It should come as no surprise, that men, black youth, youth of color and immigrant youth were overrepresented in voc-ed. In many respects, this stigmatized perception is also held by many of my higher education colleagues. If the negative perception of CTE does not change, both parents of minority youth and college administrators could be missing out on an amazing opportunity.

Here are four points that I would like to share with faculty members and colleges that are concerned with increasing the representation of minorities, particularly African Americans in STEM majors:

  • CTE is an underutilized tool by parents and four-year colleges to promote diversity in the STEM fields. There is need for greater engagement of four-year colleges in planning career pathway options.
  • The dichotomy of CTE versus a more liberal arts education is deeply rooted in the post-enslavement quest for equality. Due to changes in technology and the labor market, this division is becoming increasingly artificial and arguably a barrier to career readiness.
  • CTE programs may offer a viable recruitment opportunity for underrepresented minorities, particularly in STEM fields.
  • CTE programs present a distinct opportunity to support faculty research and faculty-student collaboration.

The framing of college versus high school agricultural and technical education has a long history in the black community directly connected both to racism and the struggle for equality. Two prominent black intellectuals were at odds regarding which type of education would lead to the civil and equal treatment of the formerly enslaved people and their descendants.

Booker T. Washington was born into slavery and emerged as a prominent American voice after enslaved African Americans were freed. (My grandfather and uncle were named after him.) Washington believed that black people would gain white acceptance through industry, self-reliance and entrepreneurship. With the help of philanthropists, Washington established the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. The institute educated students in basic reading and math, farming techniques, and the trades. After graduation, students would return to their hometowns, primarily in the rural South, and work as teachers in the trades and agriculture.

By contrast, William E. B. Du Bois embraced a strategic approach to address racism. He argued that black equality would require a liberal arts education that focused on critical thinking to develop a black leadership class: the “Talented Tenth.” This elite group of black American men would use their intellectual acumen to strategize for integration and social equality.

A Sea Change in Education

A recent study of CTE graduates in Arkansas found three key results. First, completion of high school CTE courses was associated with higher two-year college admission, lower unemployment and higher salaries. Second, graduates of CTE programs were just as likely to attend four-year colleges as traditional high school graduates. Last and definitely not least, the students that benefited most from CTE belong to groups that are often described as those at risk for poor academic outcomes: men and low-income students. Ironically, however, many of the communities that are taking advantage of vocational opportunities are not members of low-income underrepresented minority groups, but rather white and middle class.

Part of the historical misunderstanding over technical and liberal arts education is that they don’t mix. That is an artificial barrier that will become even more artificial as the nature of work evolves. Reading, writing and math will remain important, but at the same time, other skills like problem solving, communication, collaboration and emotional intelligence will become more crucial.

Further, career and technical education and traditional classroom teaching practices are converging across the K-16 landscape. Problem-based learning, work-based learning and apprenticeships are built upon the idea that, with such experience, young people learn by doing, taking risks and applying knowledge in safe, supportive environments. Both CTE and the traditional college classroom are actively engaged in making the learning experience more student centered.

Educators, at all levels, need to be able to clearly demonstrate how CTE pathways open up opportunities for minorities to participate in career fields in which they are traditionally underrepresented. Information on how CTE concentrations are aligned with two- or four-year postsecondary degree programs and the labor market can also help.

Part of the challenge is that many minority youth do not have access to the social networks that can make STEM career possibilities and pathways clear. This is where CTE educators and college administrators can support a decision-making and planning process. Youth and families will appreciate knowing that, with an industry certification like the one I hope my daughter earns, their children will be able to earn a living and go on to a four-year degree should they want to.

Career and technical education has experienced a renewal. This ain’t your grandparents’ vocational ed. There is an emphasis on growth industries, such as health care and software development, beyond the traditional trades, like plumbing and carpentry. Course offerings are aligned with the jobs that are in demand. And many CTE programs provide opportunities to take dual-enrollment, AP or college courses. Parents should see this as an opportunity to complete postsecondary or certificate-aligned course work for free.

Meanwhile, colleges should see this as an opportunity to enrich their student bodies with a diverse pool of career-ready individuals who are able to meaningfully contribute to the learning environment. With theoretical knowledge, applied experience and industry certifications, CTE students represent a pool of students that possess valuable skills that can enrich both the college learning experiences and faculty research. For example, Layla plans to attend a four-year college after completing her CTE program. As a certified lab technician, Layla will bring a different level of value and capacity to faculty research than a traditional undergraduate student.

To be clear, a four-year college is not the only path to land a job with strong middle-class earning potential. That does not mean, however, that CTE and traditional four-year college programs must be at odds. Rather, college administrators need to develop and communicate clear on-ramps for CTE graduates to matriculate through their degree programs. That will not happen in isolation. Consequently, colleges must be at the table with state and local educational leaders as educational programs are developed. If the table does not currently exist, faculty members and administrators must create it.

Given the research and realities of pathways, I think CTE is poised to serve as a viable path to diversifying STEM fields. But I also recognize that how black youth leverage this opportunity largely depends on the leaders of our educational systems and their willingness to understand the history and reimagine the future of CTE education. The value and linkages of CTE across secondary and postsecondary institutions must be strategic and clear. That will require leadership and authentic communication. May we all be courageous for our children’s sake.

Gregory Seaton is an associate director of JFF’s Pathways to Prosperity network.

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Essay on risks of the Trump administration's plans to deregulate apprenticeship (opinion)

Imagine if more than 90 percent of college students graduated with no debt and transitioned directly into jobs paying more than $50,000 a year.

These are the actual outcomes of our national system of registered apprenticeship, which has been launching Americans into the middle class since 1937. Apprenticeship is, hands down, the country’s most effective education and employment model. Unfortunately, it is also the smallest one. In contrast to the oft-cited German and Swiss systems, where upwards of half of all young people are prepared for a range of careers through apprenticeship, our system serves just a half million apprentices in any given year and prepares them for a very limited set of careers, primarily in the skilled trades.

Expanding the reach of America’s apprenticeship system is a priority for policy makers on both sides of the aisle in D.C. and in the states. There is broad agreement that scaling apprenticeship will require expanding it into high-growth industries like health care and information technology. Employers in these sectors have long relied on higher education to prepare their workers, and a college degree is required for career advancement in most fields outside of the skilled trades. To grow, apprenticeship will need to connect to higher education so that apprentices can earn college degrees and college students can be apprentices.

The Trump administration has embraced the value of expanding apprenticeship into new industries and better connecting it to higher education. But rather than focus its efforts on growing our small but high-performing system of registered apprenticeship, the administration has opted for building an entirely new system of industry-recognized apprenticeship programs, or IRAPs.

As currently proposed, these new programs will be governed by a distinct set of requirements and quality-assurance processes that, the administration argues, will make it easier for sectors like IT and health care to adopt apprenticeship. In practice, however, the proposed new processes risk opening the door to low-quality programs and introducing considerable risk into a system that has been the closest thing to a guaranteed pathway into the middle class for over 80 years.

The critical difference between the two systems is the process through which programs are formally recognized by the U.S. Department of Labor. Under the current system, sponsors of apprenticeship programs -- employers, unions, community colleges -- have to register with a state or federal apprenticeship agency that, in turn, determines whether their programs meet a set of regulatory requirements on things like program length, balance of on-the-job versus classroom instruction and the apprentices’ wages and working conditions.

Under the administration’s proposal, programs could seek formal recognition from the Labor Department through a new, vaguely defined system of “program accreditation.” To accomplish this, the Labor Department is planning to recognize more than 70 individual IRAP “accreditors” and grant them authority to determine if a program meets a set of “hallmarks” of high-quality apprenticeship that the department spelled out earlier this year. These “hallmarks” bear close resemblance to some of the key regulatory requirements of registered apprenticeship programs, such as the requirement that apprentices be paid, but are much less comprehensive and, thus far, lack any clear enforcement mechanism. At minimum, the existence of two sets of quality standards -- one for registered apprenticeships and one for IRAPs -- is sure to generate confusion for employers and apprentices and fragment any foreseeable oversight process.

In September, the department previewed the application process that aspiring IRAP accreditors would need to complete to be recognized. Applicants, which can include businesses, industry associations and colleges, among other organizations, will be asked to share their process for developing industry skill standards and to describe their business models. They will also be asked to explain how they will address conflicts of interest with the organizations whose programs they accredit.

But the department has not defined what constitutes a conflict of interest, an acceptable business model or the capacity to develop industry standards. For example, can a business or college accredit their own apprenticeship programs? Must accreditors charge a fee for their service and, if so, how much? The department has also not spelled out how -- or if -- it expects IRAP accreditors to monitor whether the programs they accredit fulfill their obligations or how the department plans to hold the accreditors accountable for poor-performing programs.

If this sounds familiar, it should. The proposed quality-assurance process for IRAPs closely resembles our national accreditation system of for-profit career colleges and trade schools. It creates an arm's-length relationship between the quality-assurance process and the government, enables the rise of multiple accreditors with overlapping jurisdictions and competing standards, and provides no clear mechanism for holding accreditors or programs accountable for poor outcomes. Put another way, the administration is copying the system used to ensure quality in the lowest-performing and most fraud-ridden sector of higher education -- a system that has repeatedly failed to protect student and taxpayers -- for its new approach to apprenticeship.

The administration has concluded that the obstacle to scaling apprenticeship is the very thing that has ensured the system’s enviable outcomes: a clear set of requirements around program structure and protections for apprentices and their employers.

To be sure, the registration process and the regulations underlying it could certainly be improved and updated. Registering apprenticeship programs can be daunting for employers or other new apprenticeship players such as colleges and universities who are unfamiliar with the process but looking to create programs in new industries that lack experience with apprenticeship. The data and administrative infrastructure at both the state and federal levels is outdated and needs to be modernized. Registration processes can differ from state to state, and the process of registering a program federally is not as easy as it should be. But nothing about the proposed IRAP system addresses these well-known -- but solvable -- barriers to expanding apprenticeship.

When the administration first announced its plans to build a separate system of “industry-recognized” apprenticeships, the biggest downside seemed to be that it would further fragment the field of apprenticeship, while missing an opportunity to improve and expand the existing system. But that may be changing, as it seems increasingly likely that the IRAP programs will become eligible for federal funding.

The department says it is not seeking to open up federal student aid to IRAPs, but it does plan to change federal regulations so that the programs would be legally equivalent to registered apprenticeship programs in the eyes of the government. That would, in turn, make IRAP participants eligible for GI Bill benefits and possibly other federal and state benefits only afforded to those in registered apprenticeship programs -- once again making veterans prime targets for low-quality education and wasted federal funds.

On Dec. 27, the department announced that it would be fast-tracking the process of standing up the IRAP accreditation system, ahead of the process for formally defining what constitutes an industry-recognized apprenticeship program. The department cited “the existence of a persistent skills gap” as justification for putting the program approval process ahead of the program definition process.

At the same time, the Education Department kicked off 2019 with a sweeping set of proposed reforms to higher education accreditation that, among other things, would broaden access to the federal student aid programs to students in programs offered by “alternative providers.” It is not hard to imagine IRAPs meeting the new eligibility requirements for a variety of federal grant and loan programs offered under Title IV of the Higher Education Act.

And once federal dollars are on the line, the risks -- and scale of potential harm -- increase exponentially.

The proposed system may well generate many excellent “industry-recognized” apprenticeship programs. But as the history of for-profit career-education programs makes abundantly clear, the combination of federal funding, a captured quality assurance system and weak accountability measures almost guarantees the proliferation of low-quality programs and increased risk for students, employers and taxpayers. That’s not what anyone needs from our national apprenticeship system.

Mary Alice McCarthy is director of the Center on Education and Skills with the education policy program at New America. She previously worked at both the U.S. Departments of Education and Labor.

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