Legislation being pushed by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) would provide participants in construction apprenticeships and other alternative training programs new access to federal loan programs for post-secondary education.

The Higher Education Reform and Opportunity Act (HERO), introduced on Jan. 9, would allow states to accredit programs that offer degrees, credentials or professional certifications to provide access to federal student loans.

Industry groups are optimistic the bill, if enacted, would expedite opportunities for students to choose industry careers.

The bill, now in the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, includes guidelines for state-run accreditation that cover program standards, student graduations, job placements, third-party verifications and federal fund administration, among other areas.

States would have to enter into agreements with the U.S. Secretary of Education to launch accreditation programs, says the bill.

"Today's higher-education system is falling behind on students' increasingly diverse higher-education needs, and the resistance to change stifles the emergence of new education models that can be more effective and affordable," Lee says.The proposed law "does not replace the current accreditation system" to traditional institutions, such as colleges, he adds.

Students now are eligible for loans under Title IV of the Higher Education Act only if they attend U.S.-accredited schools.

"Every state is different. West Virginia might want programs for mining, Kentucky for crane operators and assembly," says Michael Spilsbury, craft training committee chair for the Associated Builders and Contractors' Washington, D.C., chapter.

"Local people need control of their own economies." He adds, "Learning a trade craft offers excellent pay and the opportunity to work in the industry immediately. There are blue-collar jobs now paying more than white collar, and people should understand that."

But a spokesman for the Building Trades says the group has concerns about the bill's approach.

"Apprenticeship programs today are supervised by state and federal labor agencies that register them in accordance with the National Apprenticeship Act. This system provides for the supervision of a person learning a skilled craft, both in the classroom and on the job, by instructors who are themselves skilled workers and employers. And it works well precisely because the people who are skilled in the craft are the ones conducting the training and education, which is not solely confined to an academic setting," he says.
He adds: "Our fear is that this bill would undermine essential protections and quality training that work to prevent exploitation in an industry like construction, and that transferring this very practical training to an academic accreditation environment would undermine the integrity of an apprentice training system that heretofore has worked very well."