Chaer Robert is the Manager of the Family Economic Security Program at the Colorado Center on Law and Policy. In the interview below, Chaer shares her take on student's access to information about education options, her experience leading CO Skills2Compete, and what she’s learned from her work in the field.
1. Tell us a little about your professional background and how you came to focus on workforce development?
Prior to my current position at Colorado Center on Law and Policy, I worked as director of the Denver Women’s Commission of the City and County of Denver. There I did public education, coalition building and advocacy on a wide range of women’s issues.
While I was familiar with issues like pay equity, women in nontraditional jobs, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and access to child care, I did not have a background in workforce development. That began four years ago at CCLP as I staffed the already existing Skills2Compete Coalition.
2. When did you first get involved with NSC/WDQC and why?
As coordinator of a state coalition affiliated with National Skills Coalition, I was on a steep learning curve. I attended the national conferences, but cherished the technical assistance and support we got advocating for WIOA, then commenting on aspects of the federal rules, and our state and regional and local WIOA plans.
3. Can you tell us about your efforts to pass a consumer scorecard bill in Colorado?
During a coalition planning session two years ago, the group identified private occupational schools as one of three top priorities, along with having Colorado recognize all three high school equivalency tests (done!) and advocating for the provision of support services so that people can successfully enter and complete training.
Since Colorado is a very libertarian state, with split party control of each house of the legislature, we knew failure was guaranteed if we tried to add burdensome regulations on the for-profit educational sector. Instead we crafted, with substantial help from the Workforce Data Quality Campaign, a bill that would ask no more of a private occupational school as was asked for a public college or university also competing for WIOA training dollars, Pell Grants or GI benefit eligibility. Basically, the school would have to report student names and social security numbers. Agencies could then obtain verified employment, wage and debt outcomes could be obtained and statistical information would be made available to the public on an existing state comparative website along the lines of the federal College Scorecard website. The bill was killed in the first committee.
We learned an incredible amount about comparative websites, student disclosure requirements, accreditation, state certification, Title IV reporting, impact of private school closure on students, credit transferability, GI bill eligibility, WIOA outcome data reporting, etc. We’re not done, although we have not yet decided on what to try next.
4. Why do you feel that it is so important for students to have information about their education options?
In this culture people are told, and believe, that education and training are the key to upward mobility. Low income Coloradans are told that education is the path out of poverty. Therefore, it is easy to believe that any investment in one’s education is good. Many for-profit colleges actively market to low income adults. They often cost 3-4 times as much as community colleges, leaving people with substantial debt, even after receiving Pell Grants or GI benefits. This investment in time and money could be worth it if upon graduation they get a job with a significant boost in earnings. But some school graduates earn no more than those with a high school diploma. And those who leave school before completing any certification end up with debt, potential default and lower credit score, no credential and having used up some of their eligibility for future Pell grants or GI benefits. To make good choices about their return on investment, student need to know graduation rates, job placement rate, verified earnings data, average student loan and loan default rates. Public outcomes data also helps schools focus on job and earnings outcomes for students, and bragging rights if their students tend to succeed.
5. What is the most fulfilling part of leading the CO Skills 2 Compete coalition?
The amazing synergy that comes from having members from many sectors and organizational levels discussing issues, designing action, and advocating. From line staff to directors in community based organization, workforce centers, community college, SNAP Employment and Training, adult education, opportunity youth programs, vocational rehabilitation, policy wonks, advocates for those experiencing homelessness, welfare to work programs, and others, we together end up with a deep understand of workforce issues.
6. What do you feel has been your most meaningful accomplishment during your time at the Colorado Center on Law and Policy?
I am always proudest of our legislative accomplishments. For Skills2Compete Colorado, I am particularly proud that we conceived, wrote, and successfully lobbied a bill to fund Adult Education Workforce Partnerships. In 2014, Colorado was THE ONLY STATE that did not put a dime of state money into adult education. Our bill created a million-dollar grant program, with funds going to adult education providers who partner with a post-secondary training entity and an employment program. Too often adult education students and graduates have a hard time getting to the on-ramp for career pathways and other employment opportunities.