Florida’s Rubio Pushes Broad Higher Education Options

In a US Chamber of Commerce speech, Florida Senator Marco Rubio (R) called for encouraging more Americans to study at non-traditional vocational schools. As reported by Alexis Levinson of The Daily Caller, Rubio gave a short speech at an event for strengthening ties between business and education that stressed broader solutions for education policy that would strengthen the economy.

The key concern of business, Rubio said, should be lack of untrained workers. Calling it a “fundamental obstacle,” Rubio pointed to it as a very large national problem, saying:

The fact of the matter is that millions of our people do not have the skills that they need for the 21st century.”

Student loans were among the concerns Rubio addressed. He called for better advice and instruction for students who are looking into student loans so that they accurately estimate the likely earnings from a career before taking out a loan.

He also called for expanding federal student loans for non-traditional higher education, including vocational schools and online schools. Rubio praised the practical training that many of these schools give, stating his opinion that we should not look down on such education. He also pointed out that an increasing number of students are older and already have work experience. Non-traditional students usually find it difficult to go to school full-time, so they gravitate to non-traditional and online programs.

Enrollment has been reported to be increasing during the recession, and many of these students are older. The Census Bureau reported only 271,000 high school graduates under 25 were enrolled in vocational schools in 2011. But in 2010, the GAO reported a much higher overall figure, as high as 1.8 million. Older workers who have been laid off, or who completed college and could not find career-track work, make up many of this wave of vocational students.

At this time, federal student loans are available for many vocational schools such as giant ITT Technical Institute. But many fear that increasing educational flexibility will also increase scams; Pennsylvania State Attorney General Jerry Pappert uncovered an online school scam in 2004 by buying a degree for a cat.

Part of the answer is better regulation. Many states are working hard to keep up with new vocational and online schools. The New York Senate’s just-released report says that regulators are trying to approve 200 more such schools to add to the state’s existing 500. As more schools are regulated and accredited, federal student aid and opportunities will increase.

In the partisan atmosphere of Washington, D. C., said Rubio, it can be very hard to get attention for something like education, which is not a crisis or headline-maker. It’s good news and bad news both, the Senator said:

The good news is that this is something there’s broad support for. The bad news is that because it’s not partisan, because it’s not controversial, it’s not getting nearly as much attention as it needs to be getting.

The Sunshine State Senator was elected in 2010. The son of Cuban immigrants, he lives in Miami with his wife and four children. He is not often asked about education issues; instead, most questions addressed to Rubio are about immigration controversies. He is considered a frontrunner for the 2016 presidential election, so it is not surprising that he is trying to expand his image and address issues that are both less controversial and likely to appeal to more people. Another frontrunner, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, has made education a top priority in his state and often speaks on the subject. Rubio, who must fight to avoid being labeled the Hispanic candidate with limited general appeal, can be expected to speak on topics like education more often in the coming year.

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