WASHINGTON — Citing the “increasingly unaffordable” cost of higher education and arguing that many colleges and universities “fail” to help graduates get the skills needed for high-paying jobs, President Donald J. Trump signed an executive order Thursday that calls for the expansion of apprenticeships and more support for institutions that infuse apprenticeships into their coursework.
“Far too many individuals today find themselves with crushing student debt and no direct connection to jobs,” the executive order states.
“Expanding apprenticeships and reforming ineffective education and workforce development programs will help address these issues, enabling more Americans to obtain relevant skills and high-paying jobs,” it continues.
Although the order contains a specific provision that directs the Secretary of Education to “support the efforts of community colleges and 2-year and 4-year institutions of higher education to incorporate apprenticeship programs into their courses of study,” some education policy experts and a U.S. Congressman said it’s unclear how that or other aspects of the executive order will work.
The U.S. Department of Education did not respond to a request for information on what the word “support” means in the executive order and whether that support is at all monetary.
“It’s interesting that they call out the need to better connect apprenticeships with higher education and community colleges and four-year programs, but there’s nothing else in the executive order that would make you think that what they’re doing is going to make that easier to do,” said Mary Alice McCarthy, director of the Center on Education and Skills at New America, a think tank based in Washington, D.C.
U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Virginia), ranking member of the House committee on education and the workforce, said in a press call after the signing, which he attended, that there is broad bipartisan support for apprenticeships. However, he said a number of unresolved questions remain about how the executive order might be implemented, particularly around the creation of new programs that might be funded by federal dollars.
“If we are going to have federal support for programs, you have to have some meaningful accountability,” Scott said.
Considerable confusion hovered over news reports — such as this one — that the Trump administration wants to expand the number of new apprenticeships from the current 206,000 to 5 million over the next five years. The only original, authentic source for that 5 million figure is an off-the-cuff remark that Trump made in March when Salesforce CEO Mark Benioff challenged President Trump to create 5 million new apprenticeships in the next five years — and President Trump responded, “And let’s do that, let’s go for that 5 million.”
A Department of Labor spokesman said Thursday that no official announcement has been made regarding a goal of creating 5 million new apprenticeships in five years. Similarly, the DOL spokesman said, there is no proposed $100 million increase in grant funding for apprenticeships despite some statements from third parties that there is.
The executive order leaves questions about the Department of Labor’s role regarding apprenticeships going forward. To date, the Department of Labor has been responsible for oversight and approval of registered apprenticeship programs.
“It’s being pitched as a form of deregulation, as a way of streamlining the process and allowing for customization at the local level or business level, where the locality knows best,” said Dr. Shaun M. Dougherty, assistant professor of education policy at the University of Connecticut Neag School of Education. “I would say this falls under the general GOP interest in federalism and free market approach.”
McCarthy, of New America, said the Administration’s direction regarding the deregulation of apprenticeships is wrongheaded.
“We just feel that creating this alternative parallel system is just gonna create more confusion and fragmentation and it’s not clear how it sort of moves things forward,” McCarthy said.
Dr. Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, said the apprenticeship model in the United States is “already fairly deregulated.”
“Employers only have to follow standards if they register their apprenticeship programs with the Department of Labor, but they do not have to register their apprenticeship programs,” Carnevale noted.
“Only around half of all apprenticeship programs are registered,” Carnevale continued. “The changes that Trump administration is seeking to implement will make it easier for programs to become registered, moving the responsibility for setting standards from federal government to employers and industry associations.
“This will make it easier for unregistered apprenticeship and even some internship programs to become registered apprenticeships,” Carnevale said. “On paper this will grow the number of registered apprenticeships, but will not fundamentally change the opportunities available to individuals.”
Carnevale said apprenticeships in general “provide people good education and training opportunities and are more affordable for apprentices than traditional college programs.”
While apprenticeships have been implemented quite effectively in Europe, where they “offer an important postsecondary option to [a] substantial share of young people,” Carnevale said, in the U.S. apprenticeships represent “only a very limited pathway for a small share of people, making up less than one percent of the workforce.”
Apprenticeships put a “high cost” on employers, amounting anywhere from $13 billion to $127 billion per year, Carnevale said.
“With high costs, and no established tradition of apprenticeships in many sectors, this makes expanding apprenticeships in the United States, like growing tomatoes in the dessert,” Carnevale said. “And the Trump administration initiatives are not likely to substantively change this.”
The Association of Community College Trustees, or ACCT, said while it looks forward to hearing more about the Trump administration’s plans for apprenticeships, it also plans to provide comments as regulations are developed to institute industry-recognized apprenticeships.
“We hope these apprenticeships will retain high quality educational standards and portable credentials,” ACCT said in a statement.
ACCT also said it remains “deeply concerned” about proposed cuts to federal workforce and education programs — namely, a 40 percent cut to state grants under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), as well as a 15 percent cut to Perkins Career and Technical Education.
“These investments are necessary to meet economic demands in providing high-quality education and training for millions of student,” ACCT said in its statement.
“ACCT asks the Administration and Congress to consider that the severe cuts to workforce and educational programs included in the Administration’s proposed budget would seriously inhibit and potentially undermine workforce and education developments championed by President Trump,” the statement said.