On Tuesday, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan invited a group of education reporters to breakfast. Student debt is a campaign issue, and Duncan’s goal was to promote the administration’s record on higher-ed accountability, such as its attempt to limit federal student loan subsidies to low-performing, for-profit vocational colleges; its simplification of the FAFSA form; and its launch of College Navigator, which allows families to compare the costs and graduation rates of thousands of schools across the country. (The DOE plans to eventually include in this database “gainful employment” statistics, which measures the ratio between students’ debt and their earnings. But the move to hold for-profit colleges accountable on employment outcomes has attracted political opposition and a lawsuit, and on Tuesday department officials would not commit to a timeline for putting this data online.)
A common misinterpretation of President Obama’s higher-education agenda has been that he expects all students to attend a four-year college. This isn’t true. The president’s stated goal is, by 2020, to increase by 50 percent the number of young adults who hold a bachelor’s degree or an associate’s degree, in order to put the United States back on top in international rankings of college completion.
When I asked Duncan what high schools can do to better educate students about the risks and rewards of various post-secondary opportunities, he said teachers and counselors should mention community college, the military and vocational training as potential options, in addition to four-year colleges. As I’ve written many times, I’d like to see high schools take a more active role not just in counseling students toward higher education and career training, but also in providing structured exposure to the world of work. Although there are some excellent local programs that do so, career education at the secondary level is unlikely to become a national priority any time soon, due to budget constraints and the political toxicity of anything that smacks of “voc-ed” or “tracking.” But I was encouraged to hear Duncan speaking openly about the need to help struggling students enroll in the type of post-high school experiences that will best prepare them to get an actual job.
I also liked what Duncan had to say about higher education budget cuts across the country, which he compared to budget increases for penal systems:
“We quite happily lock people up at $30,000, $40,000, $50,000 a pop.… Budgets reflect our values. What’s more important? Are we going to lock people up or educate them on the front end? It’s eight times more expensive to lock people up than to send them to community college.”
Duncan went on to note that in traveling the country and talking about the need to invest in and improve schools, “The biggest challenge for me is complacency.” He also said that he believes unemployment is caused more by a “skills crisis” than a “jobs crisis,” and that we aren’t educating students to fill the most in-demand jobs.