One of the biggest dances at college was the Safety Dance. The 1980s-themed event called on students to break out their Miami Vice suits and Flashdance leg warmers and dance the night away to Tears for Fears, Wham!, and A-ha. I must admit that, at the time, I considered the 80s the apotheosis of pop music evolution and maintained a cassette tape collection to prove it. While I didn’t care for the aforementioned bands, Eurythmics and Dire Straits were my Beatles and Rolling Stones. And I’d tell anyone who cared to listen that 1983 – with the release of David Bowie’s Let’s Dance, Synchronicity by The Police, Men at Work’s first album, and the dominance of Thriller (released in November 1982) – was music’s best year ever.
Needless to say, with a few exceptions, I was completely wrong. It’s now clear that most of the synth-pop produced in the 80s was total garbage, as parodied in the delightful but atrociously-named Music and Lyrics, starring Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore and featuring the "hit" song Pop Goes My Heart.
Perspectives on music change, as do perspectives on education. Back in the 80s, no one would have dreamed that short training programs might qualify for federal financial aid. And as recently as a few months ago, the idea of bipartisan agreement on what’s called short-term Pell – allowing federal Pell grants to pay for short training programs – seemed as remote as the look in the models’ eyes in the video for Robert Palmer’s Addicted to Love. But just before the holiday break, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce voted 37-8 for a proposal that would establish Workforce Pell Grants for training programs as short as eight weeks.
To be sure, hurdles remain before short-term Pell becomes a reality: passing the Senate; Department of Education eligibility requirements (completion rates, job placement, return on investment); starting small with only $30-40M in annual funding. But the House Committee vote represents a breakthrough. And in an era of skills gaps and growing dissatisfaction over higher education’s status quo, the right question is what took so long?
The very day short-term Pell advanced out of Committee, Amy Laitinen, senior director for higher education policy at New America – the most influential left-of-center think tank in education and workforce – tweeted the following in response:
My brother got a Pell grant to do a welding program. Most welding programs are 9 months or longer (because it takes TIME to learn to weld!). Do you want to drive over a bridge welded by someone who took an 8-week program? #shoutingintothevoid
Critics of short-term Pell have been doing the Safety Dance for years, making it seem as if funding short-term Pell will cause bridges to collapse. But this logic is flawed for three reasons:
1) No contractor wants to hire a welder who doesn’t know how to weld.
2) The length of a welder’s training program is not the only safeguard against falling bridges – far from it. A myriad of regulations require licensure and inspections during and after construction.
3) In delaying short-term Pell for years – perhaps decades – the safety dance has delayed the emergence of faster + cheaper training programs and pathways in financial services, technology, and many other sectors where safety doesn't come into play. Not even close.
The Safety Dance isn’t only at work in short-term Pell. Also in December, the Department of Labor proposed new regulations to govern registered apprenticeships. The new rules add hoops to jump through in order to set up and run apprenticeship programs, including:
There’s more in DOL’s 779-page notice of proposed rulemaking like allowing non-apprentices to make complaints to the DOL as well as anonymous complaints to potentially spark investigations. Apprenticeships for America has a nice summary. Although there’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these new rules and many are particularly pertinent for apprenticeship’s current cozy home in the building trades, keep in mind that no federal funding automatically flows from registration. So while DOL’s proposed new rules could make apprenticeships “safer,” they beg the question of why any intermediary or employer outside the building trades would bother registering an apprenticeship program.
This is why the Wall Street Journal reacted to DOL’s proposal by calling it a classic example of the administrative state run wild: “Employers across America complain about a shortage of skilled workers. DOL’s rule will make that worse by imposing onerous regulations on apprenticeships.” The new rules are pretty much the opposite of what I advocate in my new book for scaling apprenticeships across the economy and seem to demonstrate that DOL has no idea what drives employers to hire apprentices. (Hint: it’s not more regulation.) While I know at least some DOL officials have read Apprentice Nation, they undoubtedly began working on the new rules some time ago and haven’t changed course. Another possible cause: some officials safety-danced their way over to the Department from New America.
What do these two Safety Dances have in common? A failure to properly assess risk and set priorities. While there are undoubtedly risks to short-term Pell and apprenticeships, we don’t try to regulate other areas of the economy similarly. Rather than trying to ensure that not a single student is poorly served by a short-term training program or a single worker unfairly excluded from registered apprenticeships, policymakers should focus on establishing a reliable mechanism to ensure funding flows where training leads to good jobs. This argument is what sold most Committee Democrats on short-term Pell. If students are reliably hired into good jobs out of training programs, public funding should be available and programs should expand. And for registered apprenticeships, which according to current rules – i.e., before 779 new pages – must be good jobs, regulation can be much lighter. Because the goal needs to be to convince more employers to hire more apprentices, not to establish more hoops for employers to jump through.
There’s a place where the labor market is inhibited by too much regulation. It’s where bands like Tears for Fears, Wham!, and A-ha came from: Europe.
Last month Laitinen's boss at New America, Kevin Carey, wrote an article in The Atlantic titled The Myth of the Unemployed College Grad. Carey is an adherent of the Georgetown Center on Education and Workforce college premium school: “College graduates are more likely to have jobs, become wealthy, be healthy, get married, stay married, and be on the right side of virtually any measure of prosperity and stability one can name.” And like his Georgetown friends a few miles away, Carey fails to address the many methodological problems with this line of argument – notably self-selection.
If New America is the home of a myth, it’s the myth of college for all. College seems like it should be safe; it was safe for those who subscribe to the myth; it might have been safe before digital transformation and an era of $50K tuition and unaffordable room and board. So apologists continue to respond to alternatives with the Safety Dance. But you know what’s not safe? One long, winding, and narrow pathway to economic opportunity requiring multiple years and tens of thousands of dollars of debt. That’s not safe for our economy or our democracy.
The idea behind most regulation is to protect the many – consumers – at the expense of a few producers. But the argument breaks down in the education and workforce context where protecting many consumers comes at the expense of many prospective workers. Because forcing every American to run the gauntlet of a multi- (and usually many-) year degree program to have a shot at a good job hurts the many. Perhaps not a majority. But a minority large enough to vote for dangerous – and perhaps democracy-wrecking – candidates. (And if college for all mythmakers need any more convincing, candidates very likely to take a wrecking ball to the current college system.) Scaling short-term training programs and apprenticeships have the potential to make the current system work better for more Americans by putting good jobs with reach – and nearly as important in 2024, provide the perception that they are.
It’s worth noting that a decade ago, after eight hospitalizations, my college permanently canceled the Safety Dance. Headlines blared that the Safety Dance is Decidedly Not Safe. The Safety Dance is no longer safe at my college, for college in general, or anywhere in education and workforce. It’s high time we allowed short-term training and apprenticeships to dance if they want to.