Colleges, Financial Aid Reforms Should Focus on Workforce Preparation: Experts

By Michael Clements
Michael Clements
Michael Clements
Michael Clements focuses mainly on the Second Amendment and individual rights for The Epoch Times. He has more than 30 years of experience in print journalism, having worked at newspapers in Alabama, Florida, Texas, and Oklahoma. He is based in Durant, Oklahoma.
May 26, 2023Updated: May 26, 2023

David Trulio said the late former President Ronald Reagan would be proud of the Reagan Institute Summit on Education. The Institute wrapped up the 2023 event in Washington on May 25, discussing how institutions can better prepare students for the workforce.

Trulio, President and CEO of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute, touted the gathering as something Reagan wanted for his legacy. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan agreed.

“Ronald Reagan had a positive, hopeful message, and he showed us a better path forward,” Hogan said.

Hogan said Maryland incorporates public education and workforce development through mentorships, paid internships, scholarships for low-income students, and apprenticeships. The state has stopped requiring four-year degrees for some state jobs, instead considering military service, work experience, and certification programs.

Gov. Larry Hogan
Maryland Governor Larry Hogan holds a news conference at the Maryland State Capitol in Annapolis, Md., on Aug. 5, 2021. (Courtesy of Bahaudin Mujtaba via AP)

“We made Maryland a recognized leader in workforce development and job training,” Hogan said.

Arne Duncan, a managing partner of the Emerson Collective, said ideological unity diverts energy from issues behind which society should unify, such as funding for pre-K and other early childhood learning programs.

“I don’t think any of those goals are left or right,” Duncan said.

Geoffrey Canada, president of Harlem Children’s Zone, said true education reform starts outside the classroom. He said children who are afraid, hungry, and programmed to fail by their communities are not equipped for success in school. Canada said public policy must be implemented to help at-risk students see the possibilities that exist for them.

“What are we doing to ensure those young brains are getting wired for success?” Canada said.

Sixty-three percent of students who started college in 2003-04 and defaulted on their loans by 2009 were college dropouts, while students with a bachelor’s or associate degree were only 4 percent of defaults. (Intellistudies/iStock)
Sixty-three percent of students who started college in 2003-04 and defaulted on their loans by 2009 were college dropouts, while students with a bachelor’s or associate degree were only 4 percent of defaults. (Intellistudies/iStock)

One sphere ripe for reform is financial aid, said Beth Akers, an economist and a senior fellow with the American Enterprise Institute. Higher education is a marketplace where the government exerts influence through grants, veterans’ benefits, and student loans.

“This is sort of a supersized voucher program,” Akers said.

Yolanda Watson Spiva, President of Complete College America, said the system has become so complex that it hinders students who need the aid most. Complex regulations, murky information, and confusing rules can be so discouraging that some students give up.

“There is so much red tape just to get the dollars,” she said.

In addition to a complicated application process, Steven Taylor, a Senior Fellow for Postsecondary Education at Stand Together Trust, said the system focuses largely on a traditional four-year college path, regardless of the student’s needs. Akers agrees.

Dollars Don’t Equal Completion

“We still celebrate the four-year degree as the standard,” she said.

Taylor said this often does more harm than good. Many students leave college, holding thousands of dollars in debt and essentially useless degrees.

“We have left them worse off, and college should not do that,” Taylor said.

Spiva said that is an issue that needs to be addressed. She said financial aid programs must be structured to encourage students to complete their programs to get a solid return on their investment.

“The dollars alone are not what gets students to completion.” Spiva said.

Taylor said the financial aid programs were not designed to focus on “post-completion outcomes.” But, he said, it can be reformed so that institutions focus on equipping students to function well in the working world. He said it isn’t about making glorified vocational schools. Rather, it’s about finding ways to educate students on how to adapt to a rapidly changing working world.

“We’re going to equip you with the skills so you can go out and be an adaptive citizen,” Taylor said.