Create jobs – or create more graduates for existing jobs?

On the presidential campaign trail, Obama and Romney debate job creation when the easier path is tooling up graduates of higher education for jobs that already exist. But a political divide deters even that solution.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo
Sen. Tom Harkin (D), chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, releases a Senate Democratic report Monday asserting that for-profit schools often hit vulnerable students with exorbitant tuition, aggressive recruiting practices, and abysmal student outcomes.

In the US presidential contest, job creation is issue No. 1. But there’s a flip side to this debate: Which party would be better at creating enough school graduates who can qualify for the millions of jobs now vacant in growing industries such as high tech?

Democrats prefer giving a boost to community colleges and other traditional higher ed as a way to overcome this “skills gap” among workers and recent graduates. Republicans want a level playing field for all schools, whether they be public, private nonprofit, or for profit.

The debate isn’t playing out on the campaign trail, but it’s big in Washington where well-monied lobbies for the competing camps in higher ed are very powerful on Capitol Hill.

The latest battle is a report released this week on problems in for-profit higher ed. It was led by Sen. Tom Harkin (D), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

The panel’s two-year probe looks at the high dropout rate at for-profit schools and the high burden in student loans for their graduates who fail to find jobs in their chosen fields. The findings reinforce the Obama administration’s efforts to tightly regulate the nondegree-granting programs at both for-profit and nonprofit institutions.

Such schools admit that some in their industry promise too much and deliver too little while making money off federal student loans. But they cry foul because traditional schools of higher education also have high dropout rates, while too many of their graduates also fail to find “gainful employment” to pay off student debts.

One study by sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, for example, found that only about a third of college students had improved skills in critical thinking after four years in a traditional college. They cite lax academic standards. Another telltale statistic: Among law-school graduates last year, only about half had full-time jobs as lawyers nine months after graduation.

Such numbers argue for Washington to be more even-handed and seek similar reform for all schools of higher education, even if the profit sector needs more of it.

Enter into this debate a neutral voice, US District Court Judge Rudolph Contreras. He ruled in late June that the US Department of Education was too arbitrary and capricious in setting a key benchmark for for-profit schools. The agency wants such schools to ensure that at least 35 percent of graduates repay student loans. (For public higher ed, the default rate on loans is about 11 percent.)

The judge vacated the department’s regulations, which will provide a welcome pause as Washington – and perhaps voters and the presidential candidates – raise the level of debate about the best way to educate Americans for the jobs that do exist.

It may be far easier for government to tool up workers for thriving industries than try to “create” jobs in dormant ones.

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