Five policy gaps hurting career-focused higher education

New report gives recommendations for reform

The greatest challenge to career-focused postsecondary education isn't the skills gap—it's a policy gap that leads to "trapdoors" and "dead-ends" for students looking to get ahead, argues a new report from the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation.

Colleges are actually working hard to create career pathways and partner with industry, according to Mary Alice McCarthy, a senior policy analyst at the foundation. However, she says the federal government is failing to support their efforts. McCarthy focuses on problems with Title IV of the Higher Education Act, which provides the majority of federal funding for postsecondary education and training.

McCarthy identified five areas where the federal government should change its approach to supporting higher education:

1.    Start accrediting programs: Currently, officials stamp accreditation on institutions as a whole. However, education quality within any given institution can vary greatly between programs. McCarthy contends that this impedes students from comparing programs: a prospective student researching medical assistant programs in Michigan will find several to choose from, all accredited, but with varying credit hours, professional certifications, and strength in the labor market. Accrediting programs individually would reward educational quality and help students get the most value, she argues.

2.    Emphasize labor-market outcomes: McCarthy writes that "the most obvious indicator of quality for a career education program is whether students transition successfully into jobs and careers." Yet, she points out, those metrics are entirely absent from the accreditation process. Emphasizing labor market outcomes in accreditation would help make sure intuitions are not just looking "inward" for signs of quality.

3.    Accredit certificate programs: Certificate programs are the "fastest-growing postsecondary credential" in the United States, but currently "there is no agreement among accreditors as to the quality characteristics of an educational certificate," writes McCarthy. She argues accrediting guidelines should be changed so that such a large part of higher education does not go unregulated. 

4.    Stop treating time as the only proxy for learning: Currently, students receive federal financial aid if they complete 60% of the credit hours for which they signed up. This complicates efforts to implement competency-based programs at scale. Better aligning federal aid rules with competency-based programs could save taxpayers' money—and students' time, McCarthy argues. 

5.    Reward outcomes: Currently, financial aid disproportionately creates risks for students while overly incenting enrollments. Institutions are eligible to collect federal aid as long as a student is enrolled, regardless of outcome. Tying aid levels to outcomes could help solve this problem McCarthy argues (McCarthy, New America Foundation report, October 2014; Stansbury, eCampus News, 10/28).

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