What is the purpose of vocational education? How can we achieve it?
Kevin Carey, in the March 1st New York Times “A Well-Meaning Job Training Bill That May Hurt More Than Help,” opined that it should be doing more than simply helping people get started in new careers. He criticized “The Jobs Act,” a rather grandiose name for an otherwise good bill sponsored by one U.S. Senator from each major party and cosponsored by 12 more “bipartisan” ones, “including three Democrats who are running for president,” concluding it would, per the article’s title, “hurt the students it is designed to help.” He didn’t like the bill’s shortening minimum Pell-grant tuition-coverage eligibility for programs only eight weeks long, as “study after study finds that too many” of them don’t succeed in “better jobs and wages,” but did not mention how many people completing such courses are hired into their new fields. He went off on the “dynamics” of how certificate programs, often provided by “for-profit” institutions (an expression he seems to use as a pejorative), “shortchange women,” because most cosmetology certificate holders are female, and have “limitations… stratified by race,” as more blacks than those in other groups end their education with one, and hastily concluded that, for these two masses of people especially, “the bill leaves students at the mercy of a higher education market that routinely fails them.” He cited the irrelevant statistic that “only about one in four students whose credential is a short-term certificate go on to earn an associate’s or bachelor’s degree within six years,” not seeing that those succeeding in fields they have chosen usually either conclude their higher education or wait years before continuing it. As a substitute for more vocational certificate graduates, Carey advocated “career advising and job search assistance,” as they “have been shown to help,” as if they, somehow, avoided the flaws of “short training programs of wildly uneven quality.”
Instead of scuttling a not only positive but rare and commendably bipartisan effort, how could it be improved? The answer is to require accreditations for certificate programs. It may take a while for bodies issuing them to develop their standards, and for schools to meet them, but that would be healthy, as program quality at reputable institutions would be certain to quickly improve. As well as coursework rigor, accrediting boards should also require that certain percentages of graduates – overall, not diced into sex and race groups – be hired in the certificates’ fields. When programs meet these standards, the Pell grants, described by Carey as “about $3,000” for 8-week ones could start. This – not dividing Americans by demographic factors, vilifying organizations trying to earn money, or snobbishly pitying people for choosing careers they know do not pay well – is the solution we want.