Thursday, April 26, 2012

First Things First

We have a grant-funded program designed to get students with severe educational deficits into basic skills programs, and then into “contextualized” remediation that leads into short-term employable certificates.  The idea is to help folks who would normally be consigned to the economic margins to become employable at higher, if still fairly modest, levels.  

The concept is good, broadly speaking.  And it’s easy enough to measure success: did students wind up with better-paying jobs, or not?  If students get jobs, the theory goes, then we’re doing something right; if they don’t, we aren’t.  

But we’ve hit a snag.  And it’s not just the economy and the general lack of hiring, as relevant as those are.

How do you measure the success of a job training program when many of the students aren’t legally eligible to work in America?

Until recently, this wasn’t much of a problem for us; those students couldn’t get financial aid, so most of them didn’t enroll.  But with the idea of “bridging” from community-based programs to the college, we’re suddenly confronted with large numbers of students in those programs who don’t have citizenship or documentation.

If they move through unencumbered, they’ll hit an employment wall upon graduation, and count as program failure.  If they don’t make it through, they count as attrition and count as program failure.


Heads we lose, and tails we lose.  And so do the students.

Heartbreakingly, this is not a small number of people we’re talking about.  The community-based programs have long waiting lists of people who want to learn English and work.  You know that bumper sticker that says “Welcome to America, now learn English?”  That’s exactly what they’re trying to do.  And it’s exactly the kind of service that community colleges should be doing.

In a rational world, this would be the kind of program to expand.  Instead, we’re wringing our hands about the economy while preventing people who are here from becoming economically productive.

One could argue, of course, that illegal immigrants are not the proper targets of education.  But that seems like arguing that teenagers shouldn’t be impulsive or rich people shouldn’t be selfish; it may make sense in the abstract, but the facts on the ground simply are what they are.  And I’d much, much, much rather see people move into the aboveground economy and provide for their kids than languish on the margins, on the waitlists of programs that would be blackballed for serving them.

At base, this shouldn’t be a college problem.  But since our politics seem to insist on reducing community colleges to job placement centers, this is the direction of things.  

Can you imagine how much economic activity -- tax revenue, if you prefer -- would be unleashed if we passed the DREAM act, and allowed illegal immigrants to become legal by getting college degrees or serving honorably in the military?  People could come in from the cold.  They could move into the aboveground economy, thereby reducing the spoils for the bottom-feeding predators out there.  They’d learn English, get jobs, pay taxes, and raise their kids in more stable environments.  The payoff would play out over generations.

Instead, we worry about a lack of economic growth, the things that desperate people do when they’re desperate, and whether the local community college’s job placement statistics are good.

They won’t be as good as they should be, no matter how brilliantly we teach, if nobody can hire the students.  First things first.