A Matter of Degrees

In the future world of “credentialing,” do you still need college?

Imagine you’re a twenty-five-year-old high school graduate. You’re married, you have two kids, you work full-time as an office manager for a local company. You’ve taken a few classes at your community college nearby but haven’t finished your degree. With a family to raise, you want to earn more money, perhaps working with computers, your passion. You think of yourself as the creative type, and your friends tell you there’s a good living to be made in Web design. What do you do?

One option is to enroll at DeVry University, where an associate’s degree in Web design will cost you roughly $39,000 in tuition and five full semesters—at least two years—of class time. You could also go back to your local community college and pay much less, about $2,000, for an eight-course certificate in Web design basics.

Or you could simply log on to openbadges.org, and, from the comfort of your home, learn what you need to know, at your own pace—for free.

Web browser maker Mozilla launched openbadges.org in 2011 to promote what they call “digital badges” to anyone who can demonstrate that they’ve mastered a specific skill. Much like Boy Scout merit badges, participants can earn their way up the badge ladder. Aspiring Web designers, for example, can earn a badge as a “Code Whisperer,” an “Editor,” a “Div Master,” or a “Super Styler,” depending on their ability to demonstrate their coding skills and to build their own Web projects. At the top are the “HTML Basic” and “I am a Webmaker” badges, stepping stones for becoming the Eagle Scout of the Mozilla digital badge world: a “Mozilla Webmaker Master.”

Each badge earned gets you an icon to display on your digital resume or as part of your online profile, which you can show to prospective employers. More than 1,000 groups and employers, including NASA, Disney-Pixar, the Smithsonian Institution, the New York City Department of Education, and Microsoft, are now offering or honoring badges recognizing a wide variety of skills. At the annual summit of the Clinton Global Initiative this summer, former President Bill Clinton endorsed the idea of badging and urged more employers to participate.

While badges are gaining steam, they are actually just one example of many new so-called skills-based credentials that are cropping up in different industries—from Web design to retail to manufacturing—thanks to employers’ and students’ growing disenchantment with traditional college degrees.

From an employer’s perspective, traditional degrees aren’t always all that useful, even though most jobs today require the high level of skills that post-secondary education is supposed to confer. While degrees serve as a kind of baseline measure of a job candidate’s reliability—this person showed up for class (most of the time) for X number of years—they don’t reveal much about an applicant’s actual skills. Because they really only measure the amount of time a student has spent in a classroom, rather than the skills a student has acquired, degrees confer little beyond the selectivity of the college that granted them.

From the students’ perspective, earning a college degree is increasingly prohibitively expensive. It’s also often impossibly time-consuming, especially for the growing number of prospective students who are also trying to juggle family and a full-time job. But as long as traditional degrees are the only admission ticket to better-paying jobs, people with aspirations, who often have valuable on-the-job skill sets but no degree to prove it, can find themselves unable to move up in life.

With all this in mind, a new movement has arisen that is championing alternative avenues to credentials and traditional college degrees. In some cases, companies are bypassing traditional higher education entirely by creating new credentialing systems from scratch, like those Mozilla badges. In other cases, companies have begun partnering with traditional institutions of higher education, such as community colleges or local four-year universities, that are willing to offer their workers college credit for the skills they learn on the job.

Ultimately, these innovations could be a significant boon to students. Particularly for those at the bottom of the economic ladder, the benefit could be better access to cheaper and faster post-secondary education—a must in the changing job market. But these innovations could also threaten the business model of traditional colleges and universities that are unwilling to adapt.

Continued at the Washington Monthly…

Storefront Coyotes

Meet the con artists who “help” immigrants with their visa problems—and who will get rich if Congress passes a “tough” immigration reform bill.

For more than a decade, Loma International Business Group, Inc., operated out of the seventh floor of the elegant stone building in downtown Baltimore known as “Baltimore’s First Skyscraper.” Loma’s owners, Manuel and Lola Alban, seemed to fit in well with the lawyers, accountants, and government officials who also had offices in the building. Manuel Alban advertised himself as an attorney, and the couple purported to offer legal services to immigrants, particularly from Honduras and El Salvador, who were looking for help in dealing with their immigration status. Over the course of a decade, the Albans filed immigration paperwork for more than 600 clients, charging each hundreds of dollars for their work.

In June 2011, a federal judge shut down Loma for deceptive practices. According to a complaint filed by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Manuel Alban was not an attorney, nor were the Albans authorized to provide immigration services, as they claimed. Moreover, more than half of the immigration applications they filed were rejected or denied, often because they filed the wrong form or failed to pay a fee. Collectively, the Albans bilked their clients of tens of thousands of dollars.

The Albans succeeded by using word-of-mouth advertising and preying on their clients’ vulnerability. “Since most consumers have limited English skills,” said the FTC’s complaint, “they place their trust in the Albans to select, prepare, and file the necessary English language immigration forms.”

They also succeeded by exploiting the Byzantine complexity of the immigration system, which is too intimidating for most laypeople to navigate on their own. Jackie Vimo of the New York Immigration Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy group, calls immigration law “second only to the tax code for complexity.” She says her group “strongly advises against” clients applying for an immigration benefit on their own, because the stakes for immigrants are so high. Says immigration lawyer Rachel Van Wormer, “You put the wrong things on your form, and you could be deportable.”

Talk of immigration reform is moving closer to reality, and the legislation that emerges from Congress will determine whether the treacherous path that immigrants already face becomes more dangerous still. While politicians jockey to craft a “tough” bill that piles on hurdles and paperwork for immigrants, unscrupulous entrepreneurs like the Albans are likely salivating over the opportunities.

Continued at the Washington Monthly…

Three Ways to Bring Manufacturing Back to America

The much-ballyhooed “in-sourcing” trend is real enough. But it won’t amount to much unless Washington acts.

Via Washington Monthly

In January 2012, President Barack Obama convened nineteen CEOs and business leaders at a White House forum to tout a potentially promising new phenomenon: instead of “shipping jobs overseas,” U.S. companies were bringing them back. “[W]hat these companies represent is a source of optimism and enormous potential for the future of America,” Obama said. “What they have in common is that they’re part of a hopeful trend: they are bringing jobs back
to America.”

Anecdotally, the record is impressive. A number of major companies—including some of the same firms that first took flak for “offshoring” jobs to China—are now expanding their manufacturing operations stateside. General Electric, for example, says it has created 16,000 new U.S. jobs since 2009, including jobs at a new locomotive plant in Fort Worth, Texas; a solar panel factory in Aurora, Colorado; and an engine manufacturing facility in Pennsylvania. The company’s recent revival of Appliance Park, in Louisville, Kentucky, as a maker of high-end refrigerators, was the subject of high-profile coverage, including a recent piece in the Atlantic.

Other companies that have seemingly caught the “reshoring” wave are appliance maker Whirlpool (which rejected sites in Mexico in favor of Tennessee), and iconic brands like Intel, Canon, Caterpillar, and DuPont. All of these firms have reported expanding or building new U.S. facilities in the last few years. In December 2012, computing giant Apple announced it would bring some Mac production back to America, investing about $100 million to do so.

So given these recent wins, can “insourcing” save America’s economy?

No. And yes. On one hand, insourcing is unlikely to be the magic elixir for a job market that’s only slowly gaining steam more than three years after the official end of the Great Recession. Only some jobs are coming back, and not in nearly large enough numbers to reverse the overall decline in U.S. manufacturing employment. While manufacturing gained about 530,000 jobs between January 2010 and December 2012, America is still 7.5 million manufacturing jobs down from its last peak in 1979. Even if reshoring picks up steam, manufacturing employment is unlikely to recapture the heights of the 1950s, when more than one in three employed Americans worked the line.

Nevertheless, policymakers should encourage insourcing as much as possible, even if net job growth might be a fraction of what’s been lost. At stake is something much broader—America’s future capacity for innovation.

Continued at the Washington Monthly…

Where Are the Women Wonks?

Why the average D.C. think tank event features five guys in suits.

Via Washington Monthly

Every day in Washington, D.C., brings numerous announcements about the various policy events, forums, and conferences around town that serve as meet-and-greets for the city’s thinking elite. In addition to a prepackaged muffin or a stale sandwich and some badly brewed coffee, these events typically feature a slate of experts on whatever topic is the focus. Also typically, most of these experts are men.

One recent big-name panel on money in politics, for example, featured seven white men (including the moderator) and just one woman: Jane Harman, the Woodrow Wilson Center resident and former congresswoman. Another recent all-day, all-star conference on economic policy included only twelve women among the fifty featured speakers.

Certainly, some of the most powerful people in policy today are women, such as the Center for American Progress’s president, Neera Tanden, and Sarah Rosen Wartell, president of the Urban Institute. But male “brand-name” policy experts far outnumber the women. Men—white men—dominate the senior management at many of the most influential D.C. think tanks. And men—white men—dominate the ranks of “scholars” in many institutions.

Continued at the Washington Monthly…

The Centrist Premium

For most of the last 30 years, self-described ideological moderates have comprised a plurality of the American electorate. While the share of moderates has dropped slightly in recent years, 38 percent of voters in 2010 still described themselves as such.

In Congress, on the other hand, moderates are decidedly—and increasingly—a minority. Among Democrats, the moderate New Democrat and Blue Dog Coalitions suffered heavy losses among their respective memberships in 2010 and are now outnumbered by their liberal counterparts in the Progressive Caucus. Among Republicans, moderate
members are an even rarer species. In fact, there are only 33 members of the moderate Republican Main Street Partnership who are not also part of the 177-member conservative Republican Study Committee.

Analysts have offered up structural explanations—such as gerrymandering and the current political primary system—for why there aren’t more moderates in elected office to reflect America’s true ideological complexion. This paper looks at another structural disadvantage that moderate candidates and incumbents face: campaign finance.

For better or for worse, financing plays a major role in a candidate’s viability and success. Financing buys the ads and ability to raise a candidate’s profile, counter the opposition and turn out the vote. A hefty campaign war chest can be enough in itself to discourage potential rivals.

According to the Federal Election Commission, House Congressional races cost a grand total of nearly $1.1 billion in 2010—or $2.5 million per seat. Moreover, elections are becoming increasingly expensive. The spending in 2010 was nearly double the $563 million spent just a decade ago in 2000. But as this analysis shows, the burden of fundraising falls much more heavily on moderates. While it’s axiomatic in today’s politics that winning and keeping a seat is more expensive in “moderate” districts than in more reliably red or blue turf, this analysis provides a case study that quantifies just how much the “centrist premium” costs.

In particular, this analysis draws on Federal Election Commission data to compare the campaign expenditures made by Democratic candidates and their opponents in “moderate” versus “liberal” districts in the House. To avoid ideological judgment calls, self-selected members of the New Democrat and Blue Dog Coalitions and the Progressive Caucus were used as proxies for defining “moderate” and “liberal.”

Among the key findings:

1. Moderate Democrats and their opponents spent more than twice as much on their campaigns in 2010 as their counterparts in liberal districts. Blue Dogs, New Democrats
and their opponents spent an average of $3.3 million on their campaigns, compared to an average of $1.6 million spent by candidates and opponents in Progressive Caucus districts. Not only did moderate candidates spend more to defend their seats, they
faced better-financed challengers.

2. Moderate candidates were much more likely to draw outside spending in their districts. On average, outside groups spent a district-by-district average of $1.46 million in Blue Dog and New Democratic races, versus an average of just $257,000
on Progressive Caucus campaigns. With the inclusion of outside spending, the total cost of campaigning in moderate districts soars to an average per district of $4.76 million, compared to a grand total average of $1.87 million in liberal districts.

3. “Safer” moderate members still pay a premium. On the whole, veteran moderates spend less on their campaigns than newcomers. Nevertheless, among Blue Dog, New Democratic and Progressive candidates who won by similar margins, moderate
candidates and their opponents still outspent liberal candidates and their opponents by an average of almost $900,000.

Continue reading…

Who Really Abandoned Dems?

Via Politico

Conventional wisdom is hardening on two fronts in the aftermath of the election—among Democrats about how to regain power and among Republicans about what to do with it.

Many Democrats argue, and now believe, that disenchanted liberal base voters were the ones who stayed home and that this election was a referendum on the economy. Many Republicans, on the other hand, now believe their own press about a definitive, albeit tea party-tinged, mandate.

Conventional wisdom, it turns out, is wrong.

The Obama voters who stayed home this year (the “droppers”) or who switched their vote to Republican (the “switchers”) are neither disgruntled and de-motivated liberals. Nor are they raging tea partiers.

Rather, they are overwhelmingly moderate to moderate conservative. Bipartisanship is what they demand. And the role of government, deficits and the economy are their major concerns.

 

Continue reading at Politico

What Democrats Need: A Moderate Surge

Via Politico

With the worries over an “ enthusiasm gap,” many Democrats are now contemplating a home-stretch election strategy focused on rousing the base. By carrying a left-leaning message, this argument goes, Democrats can reactivate liberal enthusiasm to equal the Tea Party’s passion.

A motivated base is indeed necessary if the Democrats are to keep their congressional majorities. But it’s not sufficient. In fact, in many of the most hotly contested Senate and House races, candidates who match President Barack Obama’s 2008 performance—as outstanding as it was—still won’t win.

In these races, the surge that Democrats need is not among liberals. They need moderate voters.

Continue reading at Politico

Build wealth, not entitlements

Via Politico

For much of the 20th century, progressives put their political capital into building a safety net to protect Americans against market excesses. They aimed for economic security from cradle to retirement.

Today, many on the left say that health care reform is just one more step in this effort.

But it would be a mistake for Democrats to make expanding the entitlement state the defining goal in the 21st century as well.

Rather, they should focus on a new signature cause: policies that build national and individual wealth. For Democrats, who may be more familiar with how to cut up the pie than increase its size, this marks a significant shift.

 

Continue reading at Politico

Making health reform work

Via Politico

With the passage of historic health care reform legislation, Democrats are rightly eager to explain what’s in the new law and ensure that Americans realize its immediate benefits. As Democrats see it, the more Americans learn the facts about reform, the more they will appreciate it.

But what could ultimately shape the public’s views are Americans’ direct experiences with reform. For better or for worse, health care reform — one of the greatest expansions of federal power in a half-century — occurred at a time of historically low trust in government. Opinion polls show barely one in five Americans believe the federal government does the right thing all or most of the time.

That means Democrats must now make the task of consumer-friendly reform its top priority.

The new reform bill is a carefully crafted and structurally elegant piece of legislation that could have profound impact on the security of middle-class Americans. It’s also legislation that demands the same degree of attention and detail in its implementation as it received in its drafting.

 

Continue reading at Politico