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E.D. Weighs Policy Shift To Tie Student Aid to Jobs

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WASHINGTON--The U.S. Education Department is apparently considering a shift in federal student-aid policy that would significantly affect whether attendees of trade, technical, and vocational schools are eligible for federal assistance.

The policy change, proposed by the Inspector General's office, would restrict aid to students attending such schools if labor-market analyses indicate that few jobs are available in a particular field.

In a memorandum obtained by Education Week, Region VI's inspector general for audit, Dale G. Purifoy, also suggests that the department restrict aid to students attending schools that do not meet unspecified graduation and placement standards.

"The federal government does no service to students by making [student-aid] funds available to them for vocational training if they do not eventually find gainful employment,'' Mr. Purifoy wrote in a March 12 report to Deputy Secretary of Education Madeleine M. Kunin. "We believe many students enroll in vocational training programs, incur significant debts, and then are unable to find work because they have been trained in fields where jobs are unavailable.''

"Still others are unable to find work because, due to inferior training, they fail to graduate or graduate but then cannot pass a state required licensing examination,'' he wrote.

Asserting that the department's response to the report is still being prepared, officials declined to discuss it.

But in a brief interview, Maureen McLaughlin, the acting assistant secretary for postsecondary education, said the department's study of these issues is consistent with President Clinton's push to revamp federal school-to-work transition programs and its emphasis on establishing occupational-skills standards.

'More Than Student Aid'

Ms. McLaughlin initially agreed to discuss Mr. Purifoy's report, but a department spokeswoman later said that she would be unable to do so.

"This is more than just a student-aid issue,'' the spokeswoman said.

An aide to Rep. William D. Ford, D-Mich., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, said Mr. Ford had been unaware that the department was considering the report's recommendations.

But, the aide said, "There's certainly been a movement in elementary and secondary education toward performance measures or assessments of students, teachers, administrators, everybody, and that will manifest itself in higher education in the years to come, and I think this is part of that.''

It remains unclear why Mr. Purifoy sent his report to Ms. Kunin or whether the department requested it. Calls to his office in Dallas were referred to the department's public-relations officers here.

Mr. Purifoy notes that his office issued a similar report in March 1987, but that the office of postsecondary education did not agree with its recommendations.

The Inspector General mentioned the recommendation in a quarterly summary of the office's activities released last week.

To illustrate why such standards are needed in vocational training, Mr. Purifoy estimated that more than $725 million in federal aid was used to train the 96,000 cosmetologists licensed in 1990. Citing Bureau of Labor Statistics demand data and "Milady's 1991 Guide to Cosmetology Licensing,'' the report concludes, "Job prospects for the 96,000 cosmetologists trained each year are dismal.''

Mary Bird, the director of government relations for the National Accrediting Commission of Cosmetology Arts and Sciences, disputed the figures, and cited industry-sponsored studies saying that enough jobs exist for cosmetology graduates.

The discrepancy raises the question of whether reliable labor-market data could be found to support a policy such as that proposed by Mr. Purifoy, said David Baime, the director of federal relations for the Community College Association.

Moreover, he said, while students should have a reasonable expectation about finding a job, they should also have a choice of careers.

"We feel that it's best to allow the decision to be made by the individual based on good information about programs and workforce needs,'' Mr. Baime said. "The fact of the matter is, a lot of people enter into an academic, four-year program and don't end up finding jobs in those fields at all.''

Congressional Reaction

Congressional aides had mixed reactions to the report.

If the department is studying one sector of postsecondary education, the aide to Mr. Ford said, it should study them all.

An aide to Sen. Claiborne Pell, D-R.I., the chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Education, Arts, and the Humanities, said Mr. Purifoy neglected to recognize that Congress recently required states to tighten licensing of vocational programs.

"The bottom line is that job-market needs, employability, and placement were all seriously addressed in the Higher Education Amendments of 1992,'' the aide said.

The report is "interesting, but I don't know what to make of it,'' an aide to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., the chairman of the Labor and Human Resources Committee, said.

"You go to any city in the United States, and you see all these kids learning to fix hair, and you just know they're not going to get jobs,'' the aide said.

A Republican aide on the House Education and Labor Committee said the department would have difficulty setting workable standards.

"I don't agree we should be exploring the feasibility of this,'' she said. "I think we should be getting the bad schools out of the business, which is what the department has been doing.''

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