Capacity and Competitiveness
The ACCESS Act, detailed in IHE on Monday, is a positive development. It has bipartisan support — already unusual these days — and it’s designed to support credit-bearing workforce programs that work with incumbent employees.
That said, it has one glaring flaw and several smaller ones.
The really glaring flaw, which is common to far too many programs now, is that it’s competitive. That means it will go to the places that already have the capacity to develop these programs. Put differently, that means it will not go to the places that need to develop these programs.
I understand the appeal of a competitive process, from a policymaker’s perspective. It enhances the likelihood of success — bang for the buck, if you prefer — and it feels like accountability. But it also tends to leave behind the same places over and over again, and those are often the places that would benefit the most.
While competitiveness holds appeal, what many places need most is capacity building. Without that, they’ll never win the competitive grants.
If it were up to me — and as I remind every administration, my phone works — we’d start with capacity-building grants with parameters, but without competition. We want workers in every part of the country to be able to get good jobs. Punishing workers in places whose community colleges are already underresourced is neither helpful nor fair.
The smaller flaws become evident when you look at the fields involved. The story names health care, IT, and logistics as fields targeted by the program. While I don’t make a habit of turning down money, our major barrier in allied health fields is the relative lack of clinical placements. That’s a systemic issue beyond anything one college can solve. We’ve been innovative, building simulation labs where we can, but at some point students need to be in actual healthcare settings with actual patients. With hard accreditation-driven caps on the number of students in a given clinical rotation, and a general industry-wide move away from acute care facilities, those placements are getting harder to keep, let alone grow.
With IT and logistics, there’s a faculty salary issue. We’d need a serious influx of cash to pay salaries competitive with industry, and even if that happened, we’d then have to deal with internal conflicts over salary compression — new IT people getting more than liberal arts faculty who’ve been here for ten years — and union contracts. Admittedly, that issue is more acute in expensive areas with unions, but that’s sort of the point; circumstances vary widely across the country, so programs with one set of criteria for everybody tend to land unevenly.
Fixing those issues requires money, but also rule changes. The politics of those rule changes are both state-specific and, frankly, hairy. It’s possible, but it would require leadership of the highest caliber at every level. That’s a tall order on a good day.
Kudos to the article for mentioning, correctly, that vocational classes tend to be more expensive to run than gen ed classes. They are. If we want to move strongly in that direction, then competitive time-limited grants won’t do it. We would need sustained increases in operating aid, which is the budget line that pays salaries. Outside observers like to assume that academic subjects are expensive frills, but in fact, they’re the profit centers that make it possible to sustain losses in, say, Nursing programs over time. If you shrink the profit centers and expand the loss centers, the budgetary consequences are predictable. There may be a valid political argument for doing that, but if so, then the political branches need to pony up to pay for it.
None of this is meant as an attack on the ACCESS act, which is better to have than not. It’s just to say that as long as legislators pick the low-hanging fruit to the exclusion of everything else, we’re only going to get so far.