President Obama’s speech on connecting education and jobs  and his lightning quick move opening Pell Grants up to unemployed adults deserves more attention. It tells a lot about the shape of things to come. Education, training and employment and social services policy have always been grouped in the same federal budget category -- Function 500  in the federal budget -- and shared an appropriations subcommittee in Congress. But the programs have never been integrated.
In tough times the connections are obvious, especially the connections between education, training and employment. The Obama administration seems to be making the connections and moving toward a legislative program that will connect the dots as they were intended to be connected when Function 500 was created during the stagflation of the ‘70s -- another era of extended joblessness that ended only with the last great recession in 1980.
Expanding Pell eligibility for workers was a very good first move toward opening up some space in Function 500 for integrating education and employment policy. The Pell move is pivotal because it shows that the president understands that postsecondary education is the work force development system and a key piece of the work force adjustment system in response to trade and technology change.
Most sensible policy that links education and jobs gets lost on the National Mall between the U.S. Department of Education and the Department of Labor. With one quick opening step Obama crossed the Mall between the DOE and DOL. He created a new space for a dialogue aligning education and careers. He found his way across the Mall; perhaps others will follow, and fewer good ideas will get lost along the way.
I think the president is serious about connecting education and jobs because he started the conversation by putting earnest money on the table. Pell provides a robust funding stream, soon to be an entitlement, that is the natural instrument for signaling a new federal commitment to lifelong learning. This speech and the action on Pell is clearly more than another love note to community colleges, gushing over how they do so much with so little, or another boutique program funded with departmental transfers.
The Pell move is a beauty. It may well be the long overdue down payment on a grand strategy to build a 21st Century work force development and adjustment system. Actually, there's nothing that prevents adults from getting Pell money. We just don't tell them about it when they show up at the employment service and they are not preferred customers in postsecondary institutions, especially private and four year colleges.. Most thought that the federal policy of "work first" choked off real postsecondary access for adults and nontraditional students (especially welfare recipients) once and for all in the booming ‘90s. Recessions make "work first" foolish, but that didn't stop the Bush administration from holding the line on education and training for those out of work, and time on their hands, in the last recession.
In truth, Pell still isn't ready for either young or adult workers. We need a separate title in the Higher Education Act that tracks more to work force needs and technical training. And we need federal institutional aid that leverages state institutional aid based on proportions of Pell recipients. That's the best way to meet the special burdens of colleges that serve low-income students and to close the 6 to 1 gap in revenue between community colleges and private universities. And we need a cost structure for Pell that recognizes that a chemistry credential costs more than a credential in English lit.
Universal access postsecondary education and training is about money. All by itself, of course, money doesn't matter, but it still buys most things that do -- including change. And if we are truly going to double the numbers of Americans who get postsecondary credentials we will need more money. Sure, every college doesn't need a graduate school. There are efficiencies to be had. But policies that propose universal access while reducing tuitions get way beyond finance into loaves and fishes territory.
Obama’s already famous capacity for persistence will be crucial if we are going to link education and careers. The future of a real work force development and adjustment system runs along a very tricky legislative track, because there are so many stops and rice bowls to be filled along the way.
A Tangled Web
There is no one route through Congress. To do it right, the President will have to coordinate changes in the Adult Education Act, the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, the Higher Ed Act, and the Workforce Investment Act and Trade Adjustment Assistance reauthorizations. Very tricky without presidential and Congressional leadership. But the urgency of the economic crisis and the need to save free trade may provide enough political juice to get the job done.
The President has good leadership already on board. Jane Oates, the new assistant secretary for employment and training at the Labor Department, could pull this off. She has accumulated the breadth of experience on and off the Hill to straddle postsecondary and employment policy.
History shows occasional, if mostly failed, attempts to bring sense and order to integrate our education and training systems. Obama's idea on making Pell available to adults was actually in the law in the ‘70s, when Congress mandated that unemployment insurance applicants be notified of federal student aid eligibility. But Rep. William Ford, more higher ed than labor, changed it because it threatened the focus on Pell for 18-24 year olds and ultimately spread the grants in ways that threatened the growth in the maximum grant.
The federal government has run through an alphabet soup of approaches to job training, from CETA to JTPA to WIA, a downhill ride.The Labor Department’s Employment and Training Administration still provides crucial labor market services and needs to do more, but postsecondary education has become the work horse on human capital development. President Clinton made a run at using Pell as the universal education and training grant by running the issue through his Domestic Policy Council, but DOL and DOE couldn't play nice. DOL didn't want to lose the training mission to DOE. DOE didn't want labor to get into its budget and feared they couldn't keep increasing the maximum grant if the Pell was aggressively extended to adults.
The Path Going Forward
The assumption underlying President Obama’s speech last week -- that postsecondary education is at the core of our work force training and adjustment capability -- should set a clear path for overcoming this history of false starts, even if the path is littered enough with legislative complexity that it will have to be an iterative process.
Emphasizing Pell as the president did puts a politically robust common funding mechanism at the center of a combined postsecondary and labor market system; now the job is to assemble the pieces already scattered about in the federal policy basement in ways that align education and employment policy. The end result will expand the Labor Department role in worker adjustment and the Education Department role in workforce development, and make the Office of Vocational and Adult Education at DOE a real player instead of a poor relation in the federal policy system. Here are some possible next steps:
- We might start with an employability standard for postsecondary outcomes. No problem. We can use employer wage records already in place since the 1930s to track earnings returns to degrees, awards and course clusters. And we can use some of the $250 million in the DOE stimulus package mandated for state data systems to pay for it (see next bullet).
- The money’s already in the bank to build a market driven postsecondary workforce development system. The stimulus package provides "up to $250 million, which may be used for Statewide data systems that include postsecondary and workforce information." And the Labor Department has another $250 million in stimulus booty to build information systems to serve job seekers.
- No need to reorganize. Better to use information systems to create market driven education and training. Building better information systems that link education and careers is far more effective than moving the boxes around on the government’s organization chart.
- Information that connects real jobs with postsecondary programs makes postsecondary more labor market driven without lots of fussing over regulatory and accountability issues.
- For starters, we need a nationwide online Labor Exchange that shows all job openings connected with an on line Learning Exchange that links job requirements to qualifying courses, awards and degrees.
- Then the real work begins: We integrate WIA into a bigger adjustment package leveraged by the politics of trade. Take the the "T" (Trade) out of TAA (Trade Adjustment Assistance) and write a worker adjustment package for all workers (with three years' experience) who lose jobs. The adjustment package would be something like Barney Frank's "grand bargain" on trade, including wage insurance, health care, asset protection (houses and cars) as well as a robust education and training title. We also need to start paying a lot more attention to community college certificates and industry based certifications with real labor market value.
- While we’re at it, we can make adult education, remediation, English language learning, etc., all work related.
- Along the way President Obama will need to continue to breathe new life into Career and Technical Education, or live with the growing numbers of dropouts foundering on Algebra II and not completing any postsecondary certificates or degrees.
- The educationally disadvantaged are a first priority but we also need a second policy focus on the more than 500,000 high school students from working families who graduate in the upper half of their class every year but never get a two- or four-year degree.
Most of this has been proposed before but with little legislative success. But the length and depth of this recession may be a turning point in the in the relationship between education and employment policy. At long last lifelong learning may make the leap from an applause line every stump speech to a line in public budgets.