Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Save Perkins!

Okay, I don’t usually go in for anything this directly political-advocacy, but desperate times call for desperate measures.

According to IHE, Bush’s 2007 budget includes, once again, the total elimination of the Perkins Vocational and Technical Educational program. (This is separate from the Perkins loan program, which provides loans to students, which they also want to eliminate.) The Perkins Vo-Tech program provides funding directly to community colleges to buy equipment for programs designed to prepare students directly for jobs.

Without the Perkins program, we would have to shut down many of our most popular and successful occupational programs – culinary arts, nursing, graphic design, just off the top of my head. These are areas in which students who are looking to join the workforce quickly can lift themselves out of minimum-wage hell. Through hard work, these students gain the skills to become productive citizens who pay taxes into the system.

The colleges pay the operating expenses of these programs ourselves. We usually take losses on these programs, which we cross-subsidize by moving the ‘profits’ from the more traditional ‘chalk-and-talk’ disciplines. We do this because we recognize an obligation to the community to provide an avenue for people with a work ethic (but without wealthy parents) to get a foothold. Technology in these areas advances rapidly, and we simply couldn’t cover the costs of keeping up with industry standards in these fields if we had to cover all the costs ourselves.

Community colleges are the lowest-cost providers of higher education. We provide no-frills education and training in locations close to where people live. We serve students who can’t afford to go elsewhere. But we’re not welfare agencies – students have to do the work, learn the material, and get the credentials through their own efforts.

What, exactly, is the objection to this program?

It seems to me that liberals should like us since we help the poor and struggling, and conservatives should like us since receiving the benefit of our help is contingent on working hard. In fact, when the Bush administration tried the same move last year, it was defeated by a bipartisan coalition concerned about protecting job-training programs. A substantial number of Republicans joined the Democrats on this one, understanding correctly that the alternatives to job training are more expensive than the training itself.
When we train a struggling single mother to become a registered nurse (and we do!), everybody wins.

In IHE, the only justification offered by the administration is a sense that Perkins is redundant with No Child Left Behind. That doesn’t make sense at all: NCLB stops in high school. NCLB doesn’t cover equipment purchases. Whatever its merits, it’s simply not applicable at this level.

I’m sure that the administration would respond by challenging us to develop other revenue streams. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, and we’ve been working on it for years. Philanthropy is great, as far as it goes, but it’s not reality to think that philanthropy will fill gaps this large at this level. Our graduates tend not to give six or seven figure gifts; relatively few registered nurses are millionaires. Businesses and hospitals occasionally help if they see an immediate and direct payoff, but they have immediate cost pressures, too, and no business wants to foot the bill to train someone to go work for a competitor.

Add to those considerations the greater ‘strings’ that attach to philanthropic gifts, and the greater costs of fundraising, and the greater cyclical swings and unpredicatability of funding from year to year, and it quickly becomes clear that philanthropy simply can’t fill the gap by itself. Large capital purchases are budgeted years in advance – we just can’t sustain programs on whims.

I have no great faith in the Bush administration’s taste for listening to reason, as my regular readers know, but this is just too basic. Training the economically-marginal for real jobs is central to our mission, and we can’t do it without external capital funding. If you can, please let your representatives hear you on this one.