by Sarah Brown
U.S. Department of Education and the Workforce? That’s what the Trump administration envisions in its new 132-page framework for merging the Education and Labor Departments, as part of a broader overhaul of the federal government.
The departments, officials wrote in the proposal, “share a common goal of preparing Americans for success in a globally competitive world through family-sustaining careers. However, the two departments operate in silos, inhibiting the federal government’s ability to address the skill needs of the American people in a coordinated manner.”
Higher-education programs would fall under a new office called “American Workforce and Higher Education Administration,” which would be “charged with ensuring that American workers possess the skills necessary to succeed in the workforce.”
Federal education programs used to be housed under a broader Health, Education, and Welfare unit. When Jimmy Carter’s administration pushed for the creation of a separate Education Department, the idea was to raise the national profile of education and assert a greater federal role in the activities of schools and colleges.
The proposed merger doesn’t come as a total surprise. President Trump said during the 2016 campaign that he wanted to eliminate the Education Department. So did at least two other presidential candidates in 2016. In just about every Congress since the department’s creation, in 1979, lawmakers have introduced a bill to cut it. None of those efforts have succeeded.
This one probably won’t go anywhere either, experts say. Congress would have to sign off on the changes, and there hasn’t been an appetite among lawmakers recently for getting rid of the Education Department.
While Republicans often single out the department as “public enemy No. 1,” says Patrick McGuinn, an associate professor of political science at Drew University, “they very much like the federal education dollars that flow into every one of the 435 congressional districts.”
Still, it’s a major proposal that would affect higher education if it were approved, which is a big deal in an administration that has been largely silent on its plans for colleges and universities.
Here’s how higher-education observers reacted to the proposal.
The proposal reflects the closer relationship of education and work in the current national policy conversation.
“The lines are getting more and more blurred,” says Christopher T. Cross, a former assistant secretary of education under George H. W. Bush. In many ways, Cross believes that’s a good thing. “Doing things like looking at how you could join together the programs in employment and training with those in career and technical education — it’s logical,” he says.
These days, education doesn’t happen in just schools and colleges, Cross says. Internships, community-based programs, and apprenticeships are all critical parts of the education landscape. “We’re in an era,” he says, “where we need to be thinking about not just where education takes place but what it is.”
It’s unfortunate, he continues, that such a proposal has surfaced in a political climate in which many people will immediately dismiss it.
But Michael Lutz, an independent scholar who works in academic publishing, is worried that the proposed merger would reinforce a view he finds problematic — that education is a purely transactional endeavor designed to get students jobs.
“It’s absolutely OK to want to get an education in order to get a better job,” Lutz says. “But there’s a way in which, in the present moment, that view of education is the one that’s sort of eclipsing the larger idea of education that is its own pursuit.” He points to the gutting of humanities programs at many institutions.
“One of the things that’s fascinating about education, but that’s also very complicated from a policy and political standpoint — education touches everything,” McGuinn says. So on the one hand, education and labor might seem like a logical pairing. But doing so, he says, would dredge up a divisive debate about how closely education should be tied to work and career.
Merging the two departments would be easier said than done.
According to the White House, 40 work-force-development programs are now spread across 15 federal agencies. Officials say the revamped Department of Education and the Workforce would consolidate that figure to 16 programs at seven agencies.
While the Trump administration touts the efficiencies that would result from such a merger, creating a new department is a heavy lift, McGuinn says. “It’s typically a ginormous mess in the short term,” he says.
“It’s easy to put up on the chalkboard, ‘We’re going to merge this or we’re going to merge that’ — it sounds nice and clean,” he continues. In reality, merging the Education and Labor Departments would require dealing with thousands of employees, dozens of different programs, different physical locations, and markedly different organizational cultures. Any savings wouldn’t be realized for at least a few years, he says.
Moreover, the programs in both departments are governed by different authorizing legislation, says Mary Alice McCarthy, director of the Center on Education and Skills at New America. And they serve fundamentally different constituencies.
“Adult and dislocated workers have very specific needs in terms of wanting to get access to job-training programs,” she says. “Higher-education students aren’t on a fast track to get into the labor market — they’re looking for affordable degree paths.”
McCarthy is frustrated that such a proposal has even surfaced. “This just seems like a monumental waste of everyone’s time,” she says. Instead of focusing on how to invest more strategically in improving educational and career outcomes for college students, she says, “we’re absolutely attacking the wrong problems.”
Some states are already merging their education and work-force efforts — sort of.
While no expert could cite a state that has fully combined its education and labor agencies, some have considered it. Ohio lawmakers recently introduced a bill that would merge its public-school and higher-education departments with the governor’s Office of Workforce Transformation.
Tod Massa of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia says he’s observed a stronger relationship forming between the two in recent years, both in Virginia and elsewhere. “It starts with the sharing of data and then progresses as policy makers want estimates of supply and demand with degrees/credentials on one side and jobs on the other,” Massa wrote in an email.
In Oregon the Higher Education Coordinating Commission includes the Office of Community Colleges and Workforce Development as well as the Office of Workforce Investments. And in Texas there’s a Tri-Agency Workforce Initiative combining the state’s education agency, higher-education coordinating board, and work-force commission.
Similar collaboration is already happening on the federal level, too. Under the Obama administration, the Education and Labor Departments jointly led the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training grant program, which sought to help community colleges improve their educational offerings.
When Cross was an assistant secretary of education, he worked on several projects with an assistant secretary of labor. For instance, they jointly took a delegation to Japan and discussed with their foreign counterparts how to better connect education with work-force needs.
Many experts hope the ultimate outcome will be greater collaboration between federal education and labor offices and programs.
“The issue at the federal level isn’t about which agencies the programs sit in,” McCarthy says. It’s about creating opportunities for people who run programs that touch on both education and work to join forces and share resources.
“That’s all very possible,” she says, “without trying to dump them all into one agency.”
Sarah Brown writes about a range of higher-education topics, including sexual assault, race on campus, and Greek life. Follow her on Twitter @Brown_e_Points, or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.