By Paul Basken
June 7, 2017
Originally published on Click here.

President Trump plans to rework college-accreditation and student-aid policies in a bid to encourage greater use of apprenticeship training in higher education, a White House official said on Wednesday.

Mr. Trump, who promoted the value of apprenticeship training throughout his presidential campaign, will outline the strategy next week at a meeting with the nation’s governors.

The announcement will include both “very strong administrative steps” that the White House is taking on its own as well as suggestions for further congressional action, said Reed S. Cordish, assistant to the president for intragovernmental and technology initiatives.

Addressing a conference on work-force training in Washington hosted by the Business Roundtable, Mr. Cordish said the president’s plan involves expanding both accreditation and student aid “so that it can be applied to vocational education and apprenticeship education without too much regulation stopping it from doing so.”

The goal of somehow expanding experiential training enjoys broad support among both educators and policy makers on a bipartisan basis. “It’s an absurd conceit of contemporary America,” said Robert B. Reich, secretary of labor in the Clinton administration, “that the only route to a middle-class life must be through a four-year university degree.”

But in the absence of more details from the administration — Mr. Cordish said he was not authorized to discuss specifics before Mr. Trump’s announcement — educators expressed doubt that such a chronic, multifaceted problem could be easily resolved, especially by a presidential order.

Expanding federal student aid into more areas of experiential learning “may well be a very good idea,” said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education, “but it’s not one that can be quickly put in place.”

Administration officials and industry executives at the Business Roundtable event suggested two main pathways: encouraging colleges to provide more experiential-education opportunities, especially in conjunction with their local businesses, and allowing nontraditional colleges access to federally backed systems of accreditation and financial aid.

Mr. Trump’s secretary of labor, Alexander Acosta, focused on the first of those pathways, saying that universities have demonstrated through the structure of their medical schools that they fundamentally understand how to mix classroom instruction with on-the-job training.

That approach has not been adopted in many other academic fields “largely because of historical anomalies,” Mr. Acosta said. That needs to change, he said, and “apprenticeships broadly conceived are the perfect model to do that.”

Mr. Cordish’s description of changes in accreditation and student aid, meanwhile, suggested the White House was looking at ways to give noncollege education providers federal money to support apprenticeship training.

Such extensions of eligibility have been suggested in the past and have proved complicated, Mr. Hartle said. That’s because it means changing federal rules for student aid in areas, such as institutional quality and minimum numbers of credit hours, that are designed to protect students.

“The challenge with that,” Mr. Hartle said, “is making sure that the new providers are more interested in providing students education and training, and not simply interested in their student-aid money.”

As for colleges and universities themselves providing more experiential education, the obstacles appear to be a mix of student demand and employer willingness to pay.

The Cost Factor

The Business Roundtable, an association of chief executive officers of top American companies, issued a report on Wednesday on work-force development that highlighted the wide availability of apprenticeship training in countries such as Germany.

Some American employers are willing to pay training costs beyond the production value they recoup from apprentices working in their facilities, said Robert I. Lerman, a professor emeritus of economics at American University. But for the most part, Mr. Lerman said, the governments in countries such as Germany cover those costs.

By comparison, America spends almost nothing, he said. While the U.S. government distributes about $5 billion a year among various job-training efforts, it allocates only about $120 million a year to civilian apprenticeship programs, he said.

Without more public investment in this country, employers will have to make clear with their own funding how much they value apprenticeships, said Peter Cappelli, a professor of management and education at the University of Pennsylvania. “We should be careful about any efforts to push this onto schools and the education community to solve,” he said.

And when there is student demand, higher education — especially the community-college sector — has often responded, Mr. Hartle said. He cited examples such as community colleges offering off-site programs in nurse training. The focus by the Business Roundtable report on the need for more training in other areas, such as welders and solderers, seems potentially misplaced, Mr. Hartle said, given the relatively modest pay available in such careers.

Over all, higher-education leaders said the Trump-administration initiative is welcome, even if there may be a lot more questions to answer before successes can be declared. The Obama administration made some progress in promoting experiential education during its last two years, Mr. Lerman said, though that consisted mostly of some additional funding and new experimental programs.

Expanding university-industry partnerships is critical, so that training meets local business needs, said James K. Woodell, vice president for economic development and community engagement at the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities. He cited a successful cybersecurity-training partnership between the University of Maryland and the Northrop Grumman Corporation.

But there are many other obstacles to better matching industry needs to the workplace, Mr. Woodell said, including improvements in worker pay and teacher training. “It’s certainly more complex than just this one issue” of expanding apprenticeships, he said.

Other hurdles hindering apprenticeships include the need to make prospective students more aware of the benefits of such training, and making sure the resulting certifications are widely recognized and accepted in the employer community, said Gary Burtless, an economist and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

“Expanding apprenticeships requires a large public investment in institution-building,” Mr. Burtless said. “I doubt that changes in student-aid rules, by themselves, will have a notable impact.”

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