Sunday, July 10, 2016

Welfare Reform, For-Profit Education, and Community Colleges

Did welfare reform lead to a rise in for-profit education?

I hadn’t connected those dots before, but in retrospect, should have.  

Marketplace has been running a new spinoff podcast called The Uncertain Hour, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.  The first season, which just ended (but is still available for download), is devoted to looking at welfare reform with the benefit of twenty years of hindsight.  The last episode starts with a discussion with Tressie McMillan Cottom, a rising-star sociologist at VCU (and a personal friend), about the connection between welfare reform and for-profits.  Check it out, but briefly, Cottom notes that the welfare reform act of 1996 put strict time limits on any education or training that recipients could get, and also required that it lead directly to jobs.

In practice, that meant that even a two-year degree was far too long.  Certificates of less than a year, in clearly defined occupational areas, were the only things that fit.  And in the late 90’s, those were largely the domain of for-profits.  If you could get, say, a cosmetology certificate in a few months, that was fine, but going for, say, a Nursing degree was out of the question.   

At the time, community colleges’ short-term certificate programs were relatively limited, and often relatively unknown when they did exist.  An abrupt legislative mandate suddenly gave the for-profits an opening.  

With twenty years’ hindsight, it’s obvious that encouraging the poorest of the poor to take on five-figure student loan debts for certificates that may or may not lead to jobs that pay a little over minimum wage (when you can find them at all) was ill-advised.  But the cultural panic around welfare dependency was such that nuanced arguments were simply ignored.   Several domestic policy advisors in the Clinton administration quit when their multifaceted advice was cherry-picked for the most regressive possible impact; that was the climate at the time.

Since the mid-90’s, community colleges have become much more focused on short-term certificates, though it isn’t always obvious from the statistics that many people use.  That’s because when we talk about “graduates,” we typically refer to students in programs that bear academic credit.  But short-term certificates may or may not bear credit.  Most colleges count credit and non-credit numbers separately, so the true magnitude can be easy to miss.

Non-credit areas have certain freedoms that credit-bearing areas don’t.  They aren’t wedded to a particular calendar, for example, so you don’t have the issue of someone who gets laid off in February being told to come back in September when the semester starts.  They don’t have to use the credit hour, so they can allocate different amounts of time for different skills.  (Certain practitioner-oriented fields, such as health care, still have time requirements for clinicals or work experiences, but the larger point still stands.)  They don’t typically have the same requirements for instructor credentials, so it’s often possible to hire an instructor in a technical field who has a bachelor’s and lots of experience, even without a graduate degree.

But non-credit sides of colleges are also expected to carry their own weight economically, or even to turn a profit.  In other words, even if the community college as a whole is non-profit and subsidized, the side of the college that runs non-credit programs is still expected to behave like a business.  It’s a business selling empowerment, but it’s a business.

In practice, many short-term training programs are either run in partnership with particular employers, or funded by various grants, both public and private.  The tuition for students is usually far lower than a for-profit institution would charge, but most of the costs are still there.  They’re just shifted.

And that’s where I wish The Uncertain Hour had gone a little deeper.  It spends six episodes ably outlining ways in which welfare reform has either bypassed the poor entirely -- the episode on the “love styles” workshop nearly made me drive off the road -- or has made life harder for them.  It notes that while some programs may have nudged people into work, most of the ones pushed into work didn’t get out of poverty.  The expectation that a job, any job, is the route out of poverty is much too simplistic.  The “working poor” stand as living refutation of that.

I’m old enough to remember the debate and the climate in the mid-1990’s.  The earnest question that Krissy Clark, the host of the podcast, keeps asking is largely off-point.  Although there was talk of helping the poor “escape” poverty, the real point of the enterprise was to get them off welfare.  What happened after that was left to the fates.  

If you accept that interpretation, then the otherwise-puzzling policy of steering the poor into for-profit providers that charged five figures makes sense.  The point wasn’t really to benefit the poor; the point was to stop paying for them.  Shifting the cost of job training from employers or the state to the poor themselves accomplished that.  The late 90’s boom briefly masked the failure of that model, but the 2008 collapse made it obvious.  The cost-shifting model fails when the folks to whom costs were shifted can’t pay.  Community colleges have picked up some of the slack through a series of separate workforce grants (TAACCCT, for example) and an internal separation that effectively moves those programs off-book, but our political discourse only vaguely understands what happened.

Now within the community college world, “credit for prior learning” and “prior learning assessment” are gaining steam as ways to break down the walls between the non-credit and credit sides.  Students who started in short-term workforce programs sometimes discover a taste for education (and/or an ambition for promotion), and want some recognition of the work they’ve done.  “Stackable” credentials and non-credit to credit conversions are emerging to make that crossover possible.  Some of us see credit for prior learning as a social justice issue.

From the standpoint of 2016, we have a piecemeal but large and growing non-credit operation at most community colleges that has emerged as an unintended consequence of a shortsighted policy decision in 1996.  Thank you, Prof. Cottom, for connecting the dots.  And let’s try to learn the right lessons this time, whether applied to “skin in the game” or “performance funding,” so we don’t find ourselves doing a similar post-mortem in 2036.