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A Career Prep Bill Gets Bipartisan Support in the Senate. What’s in It?

A new bipartisan bill introduced this week in the U.S. Senate would authorize multimillion-dollar grants to states so they can bolster career training through dual enrollment, apprenticeships, and other forms of on-the-job preparation.

It’s the latest sign of a growing bipartisan commitment to the value of career training and a recognition that the academically oriented, college preparation track isn’t right for all high schoolers.

The Assisting Community Colleges in Educating Skilled Students to Careers Act, or the ACCESS to Careers Act, would authorize grants of $2.5 million to $10 million to states so they can develop partnerships involving schools, community colleges, and employers to bolster initiatives like dual enrollment and on-the-job training.

The bill from Sens. Tim Kaine, D-Va., and Todd Young, R-Ind., would also establish grants for community colleges to support paid internships, establish processes for awarding students course credit for prior college-level learning and skills gained outside of the classroom, and dual enrollment for high school students.

The legislation, which Kaine and Young introduced Feb. 6, comes at a time when career and technical education and other forms of career training are emerging as a key K-12 education priority for policymakers and as more Americans think career, rather than college, preparation should be high schools’ top priority.

It also comes at a time when dual enrollment programs that allow high school students to earn college credit and enter the workforce sooner are surging. High school students earning college credit now account for a fifth of community college students, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center has estimated.

Legislation faces tough test in Congress

To be sure, the odds of the legislation passing as written are long in a divided Congress. Kaine and Young previously introduced the legislation in 2020 and 2021, but it died in committee each year.

Still, it’s encouraging to see lawmakers on both sides of the aisle support CTE and career prep, said Walt Ecton, an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Florida State University who studies career and technical education. It represents a “growing recognition that a four-year degree is not what college looks like for everyone,” he said.

Ecton pointed out that it’s likely that Republicans are more supportive of career programs because they have longstanding relationships with the business community and might sympathize more with businesses that are struggling to hire enough employees as unemployment has continued to drop. And in recent years, Republicans have tended to be increasingly critical of the value of four-year college degrees, he added.

For Democrats, interest and support tend to lie in the recognition that some students “fall through the cracks” when pushed to pursue a college degree, Ecton said, because “it’s not the right track for everyone.”

“It does become an area where there’s a lot of bipartisan support, even if some of that support is for different reasons,” Ecton said.

One of the most encouraging components of the federal bill, Ecton said, is that at least a quarter of grant funds would have to be used for student support services, including transportation, mental health and substance use disorder treatment, and help accessing food assistance. Those efforts could make a big difference in helping more students participate in and finish a program, particularly if they come from minority or low-income backgrounds, he said.

“There’s been really great evidence over the last several years that these types of support programs that can help students through difficult situations and help connect them to the support they need outside of the classroom can be really impactful in helping them succeed inside the classroom, too,” Ecton said.

Neither Kaine nor Young was available for an interview, but in statements, both touted the bill’s potential to boost students’ access to career training and, ultimately, their ability to secure in-demand jobs.

The bill would prioritize grants for areas with high unemployment or poverty, and areas where career training would help “regional employers in in-demand industry sectors or occupations.”

Grants for community colleges, or consortia of community colleges, would range from $1.5 million to $5 million and last up to five years.

Other efforts to boost career and technical education

The bill comes on the heels of other policy developments in recent years championed by politicians from both parties that have boosted, or sought to boost, resources for career and technical education and other career training.

President Joe Biden’s 2024 budget proposal unveiled last year proposed $200 million for a U.S. Department of Education grant program to help high schools partner with colleges, universities, and employers to give students internship and dual credit opportunities.

The budget also proposed a funding boost for Perkins V, the federal program that provides states with grants for their CTE programs. Perkins V was itself an expansion of the long-standing Perkins grant program that former President Donald Trump signed into law in 2018.

“It’s promising to see policymakers recognize that a really important subset of students need to be supported with these programs,” Ecton said of the new federal bill. “I think it will be interesting to see if this is kind of a one-time blip … or if this reflects more of a long-term, sustained commitment to supporting these technical programs.”

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