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The Case Against Greater Federal Support

The case for an increased federal role generally in growing the number and quality of CCL opportunities has attracted greater bipartisan support in Congress than the case against. Nevertheless, the opposition that remains is sufficient to make passing legislation challenging. Those against the federal government playing a more significant role offer six main reasons.

Diverts People from College

College EducationFirst, opponents argue a significant change in federal policy to make workforce development a more attractive alternative to college would be a mistake. They contend a college education remains the best path to realizing the American Dream. We should encourage our citizens to get a degree, they suggest, whether they come from low-, middle-, or high-income families and whether they come from families with no or with extensive college experience.

Because college graduates have higher average earning power, opponents suggest the emphasis on college is warranted as preparation for one’s career. Furthermore, they argue the benefits of a college education go well beyond narrow training to complete tasks at work. In college, opponents contend, one develops more generalizable competencies like critical thinking, effective communication, and an ability to engage diverse perspectives constructively. They suggest these broad capabilities are critical to individuals’ success not only in their professional lives, but also in their personal lives and in their responsibilities as citizens in a system of self-government. Opponents of greater federal CCL support suggest these broad competencies are even more important with today’s bitter partisanship. That includes giving citizens the tools to recognize today’s rampant misinformation for what it is. A survey by the American Enterprise Institute found college graduates are more civically engaged than those without a college degree.

Opponents also argue that, while more than $112 billion in annual federal support for college students may seem substantial, it’s actually far less support than we used to provide when the rapidly increasing costs of college are taken into account. For example, opponents observe that the maximum Pell Grant covers just 28% of the average costs of four-year public college, a significant drop-off from the peak of 79% in 1975. They argue that, given the superiority of a college education, the federal funding priority should be restoring support to its original purchasing power, rather than on career connected learning.

Finally, opponents argue we should be proud of our contrast with the European model. They observe that, in Europe, citizens are segregated into either a trade or a college track early on. Opponents note that those from lower income and less educated backgrounds, as well as people of color and immigrants, are disproportionately segregated into the workforce development route with little opportunity to change course later. They argue we should not embrace this kind of discrimination in America. Instead, opponents suggest we should maintain or increase our emphasis on college, including by prioritizing it over skills education so more, not fewer, go to college.

Career-Connected Learning is Too Often Low Quality and Ineffective

Opponents of increased support for CCL argue workforce education programs are too frequently low in quality. They cite studies demonstrating that many certificate programs do not deliver the promised placement in higher paying jobs. Opponents note a high proportion of programs in career education are offered by for-profit institutions, which are especially poor performing, or are in fields at the lowest end of the earnings scale (see “What the Evidence Says” below). Additionally, opponents note, research shows good information isn’t readily available to potential students to help them pick which programs will effectively boost their earnings and which won’t.

Opponents argue the most serious consequence of poor-quality workforce programs is they can actually leave students worse off financially. If the program fails to place students in higher paying jobs, those students are nevertheless saddled with student loans they can’t afford to repay.

Earnings Do Not Continue to Rise as Rapidly as for College Graduates

While some opponents acknowledge some workforce skills education programs can produce significant initial increases in earnings, they argue their earnings then tend to plateau. The more general education provided in college, they suggest, establishes a foundation for graduates to continue to grow in responsibility and earnings throughout their career.

Increases Federal Spending When We Should Be Cutting It

Opponents point to record levels of federal spending, as well as the debt and deficits that go with it, as another reason we should not increase federal support for CCL at this time.

The increase in federal spending has contributed, opponents argue, to a significant rise in inflation, making goods and services much more expensive. The Federal Reserve is working to combat inflation by increasing interest rates, which opponents observe then raises two more problems. First, it obviously increases the cost for individuals and businesses to borrow money. Second, higher interest rates mean interest payments on the federal debt are growing significantly, crowding out federal opportunities for high-priority investments or reduced taxes.

Sufficient Increases in Federal Support for CCL Have Already Been Made

Some argue now is not the time to increase federal workforce development spending given new investments have already been made over the last several years. A bill signed by President Trump in 2018 and another signed by President Biden in 2021 both included CCL funding. The 2018 bipartisan Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act, also known as “Perkins V”, is the latest in an on-going program that was first established by a 1984 bill to support career and technical education. The 2018 law provides $1.4 billion each year in on-going funding for high school and post-secondary job training programs, an increase of about $300 million per year compared to the previous Perkins bill.

The 2021 bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act CommonSense American helped pass is projected to create 700,000 jobs per year that will be needed to improve the nation’s infrastructure. Many of these new jobs will need to be filled by skilled workers. The law allocates nearly $15 billion per year for five years of one-time funding for job training and other workforce development programs.

Additional CCL Better Left to Businesses

Opponents also argue workforce development is a particular form of education in which businesses should take a more prominent role. If a program is specifically oriented to making workers more productive, and if the economic benefits for businesses are as high as claimed, they argue, then business should make the investments needed to foster the additional skills education.