The following interview is with James Jacobs, president of Macomb Community College. A little while ago, Jacobs spoke about the financial challenges adult students face when enrolling in job-training certificate programs. In this interview, Jacobs expands on the issues faced by non-traditional students who enroll in non-degree programs in the hopes of finding work, and shares his thoughts on the responsibilities of employers and government bodies in ensuring adults are adequately encouraged to pursue this form of education.
1. What are some of the most significant financial roadblocks adult students face when enrolling in non-degree programming?
I think the most important one is, of course, the question of how you pay for it. When you use the term, “non-degree program,” what that means in the United States is that a student does not have access to various forms of federal student financial aid. Usually that’s true on the state level and, certainly, within the college itself, most financial aid, scholarships, etc. are really the province of the credit students — students taking courses in the credit program. So, to a large extent, an adult in a non-degree program is faced with a serious lack of access to financing.
The second issue is that the financial roadblocks [that are] often faced [by] adults also have to do with their family and their inability to go to school and focus only on school, but their need to juggle both school and often work to provide for their family. In a much better situation, student success is clearly related to how much intensity and time and focus you can have on just one area, which would be to go to school full time. Most adults can’t do that. They have to, again, balance school and work and family and that raises a particular problem for the non-credit students. And I think those are the kinds of things which make it much more difficult for adults to return to school in the non-credit area. It’s difficult enough for adults to return to school in general, but to take away whatever small amounts of financial assistance they could get — it becomes a huge issue.
Finally, … many companies — in fact the majority, probably, in the United States— have various forms of tuition assistance. And they are normally funded through a process which also allows the company to get a federal tax credit of some form. But that’s only for credit programs. Non-credit programs are rarely ever supported that way by a company.
2. In a New York Times article earlier this year, you explained the difficulty students face in paying for job training — through certificate program tuition — before they even have a job. What kind of a role do you think employers could play in helping make workforce-related higher education more affordable?
Well, there are a number of things. Let me expand a little bit on this point because I think it’s an important one that affects both public and private sector work.
In the past, to become a police or firefighter, you actually were admitted to the job — i.e. police or fire department — and went to programs where you learned the skills of your work in police training, or policy academy or fire academy. Increasingly, what we find is that with the academies that we run, individuals go through the academy and then take that graduation and then go to different police departments or fire departments to try to get hired.
It seems like it’s a backward process to do it that way. So, understanding some of that and applying it to the private sector, what I think needs to happen is that adults should have some — if not a guarantee of a job — at least very good knowledge that the training that they would take up on their own time and effort, and often with their own money, would lead to certain considerations at the time of hiring by a company. So, the obvious best situation would be for companies to pay for this training or to reimburse upon hiring for the training. But a second — and more likely to achieve — change would be for companies to at least acknowledge that individual who goes off and accepts and gets trained and gets a certificate of some sort that validates that training, has a leg-up in the internal labor queue of companies in the way in which they do hiring.
So, I think some forms of breaking through in that way would, I think, be extremely useful for encouraging adults to go back to school. Because the first question that an adult will say is: “Why should I go back to school? Why should I take that risk of time and effort, which often means either not working overtime or not having a job at all,” which has profound financial impact on not only the individual but also on their family.
Why should they take that risk if there’s no or at least some certainty that taking that risk in earning that certificate puts them in a much more favorable light in terms of the labor market queue?
It is certainly true that there are employers in the United States who are finding that there are labor shortages in particular areas. What would push an adult into a particular field, particularly if that field would take a considerable amount of training? Well, one of the things that could encourage and motivate adults to go into certain fields where there are labor shortages would be if there were some form of company, either, recognition of that in the hiring process or even reimbursement, after one was hired.
3. Along the same lines, what kinds of strategies or policy changes do you think the federal government could put into place to ameliorate some of these issues?
I think the area that the federal government has some responsibility for is workforce development, and there are job training programs and job training funds. I will say that over the last 20 years … the federal government, in budget terminations, has in general cut many programs and certainly lessened the aggregate amount of money that goes to federal training. … Expanding that would be useful.
But the second is also thinking about this in a different form. We often talk about workforce development and training. The real proper, I think, way of looking at it is as workforce investment — that the federal government should be using its funds to invest in things that will move the economy forward in meeting its mandate to increase the overall aggregate wealth and growth of the people. What that means specifically is that federal workforce development funds should be looked to in a little bit of a different light. Currently, it’s sufficient for the workforce boards to say that success means you get someone a job. Well, we know that in many low-paying jobs, the amount of changeover and the circulation of individuals within those jobs is formidable. So there will always be sufficient low-paying jobs to “place somebody” into.
The real issue is where are the shortages and the shortages that are having an effect on the rest of the economy? And those are often in areas where some skills are required, which means some forms of long-term training. So our workforce development funds should really be utilized to develop individuals with foundation skills and technical skills so that, over the long run, they can contribute to the society.
Really, seeing the workforce investment system as really less of a system that gets somebody a job, whatever that job is, but really sees it as an investment both in people and employers and in occupations so that a long-term perspective is taken.
Those are the kinds of perspectives I think that the federal government needs to have and, clearly, that agenda should be part of the competitive agenda for the nation as a whole. In other words, individuals who are looking for training and education who are adults should also be encouraged to look in fields where there are needs, and their training will not only provide them with an income but also provide the society with the kinds of talents that will make us a better and a more competitive nation.
4. Is there anything you’d like to add about the importance of making sure non-degree programs — especially for adult students — are better funded and making sure access to those programs is as wide as possible to the students?
It’s certainly true that funds and resources are absolutely key to consistently advocate for these programs. We’re also looking at what I would call a “sea-change.”
Programs are often directed at getting an unemployed person employed, and while that certainly is a positive thing, many times these are programs which get people employed in, often, very low-wage, dead-end jobs.
We should really look at the system as an investment system. What are the kinds of things that the society needs to promote in terms of workplace occupation? Clearly these are often occupations that require science and engineering backgrounds, etc. That’s long-term training. And for adults to go into those areas, they do need to have some process by which they can be supported as they go through this longer-term training.
It will cost more; it will be a little bit harder to organize. On the other hand, the payoffs to this society as well as the payoff to the adult will far exceed what goes on today. So it’s not just money, it’s looking at a different kind of perspective that I think is important.
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