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Betsy DeVos: Stop ‘Forcing’ Four-Year Degrees as Only Pathway to Success

By Alyson Klein — November 13, 2017 3 min read
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U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos told a meeting Monday that the country needs to quit trying to push every student to attend a four-year college, and open up apprenticeships and other workplace learning experiences to more students.

“We need to stop forcing kids into believing a traditional four-year degree is the only pathway to success,” DeVos said at the first meeting of the White House Task Force on Apprenticeship Expansion. “We need to expand our thinking on what apprenticeships actually look like ... we need to start treating students as individuals ... not boxing them in.”

The panel, which was created through an executive order signed by President Donald Trump earlier this year, is chaired by Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta. DeVos and Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross serve as vice-chairs. Ivanka Trump, the president’s eldest daughter and a White House adviser, was also on-hand.

The task force consists of business and education organizations, including representatives from the American Association of Community Colleges, the Association of Public and Land Grant Colleges, and the Business Roundtable. There are also GOP governors on the task force, including Gov. Dennis Daugaard of South Dakota, and Gov. Kim Reynolds of Iowa.

Acosta kicked off the session by talking about the yawning “skills gap.” The country, he said, has more than six million open jobs, but some employers can’t find workers with the skills to fill them. Later in the meeting, he mentioned that a company in Texas was looking to hire dozens of welders for jobs paying $65,000 a year, but couldn’t find them. And Trump noted that, in Germany, about a third of workers go through some sort of apprenticeship program, so the idea “can be scaled.”

DeVos gave a shout-out to “Earn + Learn,” an apparent reference to a Detroit-based nonprofit that pairs educational training, including GED courses and reading, math, and computer courses, with financial coaching, and job training opportunities.

The Trump administration can use its “bully pulpit” to advance career training, and help set up some incentives through the pending reauthorization of the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, DeVos said.

But most of the progress on job training will likely come from the private sector. The task force, DeVos said, is about getting a chance to hear from the business community about how government can help businesses advance their career training goals—even if the answer is to get government of out of the way. She expected, too, that many solutions would be “regional in nature.”

DeVos also recounted a conversation she had about when the “higher education bubble” would burst. She’d heard it suggested that some of the biggest employers in the country should band together and come up with their own solution for workforce training problems.

During a nearly two-hour discussion, some of the members echoed DeVos’ sentiments. For instance, Joseph Sellers, the general president of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers, noted that some guidance counselors feel they are judged on how many of their students enroll in college, so they are more likely to push students that way.

Acosta also wanted to know what the appetite is in higher education to make changes—whether colleges can move to certificate programs. Walter G. Bumphus, the president and of CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges, said that colleges are ready to move forward. He highlighted to separate partnerships between the City Colleges of Chicago and the consulting organization Accenture and Gateway Technical College in Kenosha, Wis., and Ocean Spray.

Accosta closed the meeting by saying that the panel would be putting together a guidance document on apprenticeships.

President Donald Trump shakes hands with Charles Robel after signing an executive order in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on June 15 establishing the Apprenticeship and Workforce of Tomorrow initiatives. He is joined by Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., left, Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, second from left, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, third from left, and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, right.--Susan Walsh/AP-File