For the rollout of its 2013 federal budget, the White House could have chosen a medical lab, an electric-car factory or a symbol of any other key item in its spending plan. As it turned out, President Obama jogged into the gym of Northern Virginia Community College to deliver his budget message this past week. “I’ve been here so many times,” he deadpanned, “I’m about three credits short of graduation.”
The final budget proposal of Obama’s term would devote $8 billion to help community colleges collaborate with local businesses to try to equip 2 million Americans with, as the president put it, “skills they need to get a job right now.” And the bit of stagecraft on the Annandale campus attests to the administration’s love affair with the nation’s nearly 1,200 two-year colleges — as a steppingstone, in an era of unparalleled long-term unemployment, to improve prospects for U.S. workers and, in turn, the president’s electoral fortunes.
This latest idea, for a Community College to Career Fund, follows a familiar theme. There was $12 billion for community college training grants (later sliced by Congress to $2 billion) in the president’s economic stimulus plan in the winter of 2009; a White House Community College Summit in the fall of 2010; and just five months ago, $5 billion to renovate community colleges in the administration’s most recent jobs proposal.
As the president and his Republican opponents see eye to eye on little else, offering government subsidies to teach unemployed workers to do new jobs stands out as an economic policy on which they agree. GOP presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich favor retraining efforts. So does House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the architect of a conservative vision for the nation’s fiscal policies. “Equipping workers with the skills and tools they need is a proper role for the federal government to assist with,” Ryan’s spokesman told me the day Obama’s budget came out.
Yet, the widespread confidence that going back to school is a sure path out of unemployment rests on a shaky foundation. The research on the effectiveness of federally supported job retraining at community colleges is fairly thin, and the studies that exist offer no clear evidence on the central question of whether it really works.
That question is quite important: While U.S. unemployment overall has fallen lately — to 8.3 percent last month — long-term unemployment is lingering. More than two in five unemployed Americans (5.5 million total, as of January) have been unable to find a job for six months or longer. That rate, essentially unchanged for the past year, is higher than at any other time since the government began keeping track around World War II.
The lack of solid evidence for retraining has been pointed out by the Government Accountability Office. In a January 2011 report, the GAO noted that the number of federal employment and training programs for dislocated workers — people knocked out of jobs who are unlikely to find similar ones — and others had swollen lately to 47. “Little is known about the effectiveness of most programs,” the report said.