It’s time to make college work for working people, business, and our economy

By Nicky Lauricella Coolberth, April 29, 2022

Making college work for working people, business, and our economy means adopting higher education policies that fully support working people’s needs, career goals and economic mobility – as well as businesses that depend on a pipeline of trained, skilled workers.

Our nation’s higher education policies were developed over fifty years ago and no longer fit the needs of today’s students or the rapidly changing skill needs of today’s labor market. They were designed to support young, full-time students living on campus with support from their parents. Fast forward fifty years, and 70% of today’s students don’t fit the mold around which higher education policy was built more than five decades ago.  

Workers and employers need higher education to help them rapidly re-skill throughout their lives – whether that’s because of the restructured labor market, massive economic displacement from a global pandemic, or rapid technological change. Here’s the challenge: postsecondary education policies simply aren’t set up for learning workers or the realities of the 21st century economy.

In many industries, including manufacturing, allied and direct health care, and infrastructure among others, finding trained & skilled workers was a challenge even before the pandemic began. This skills mismatch was exacerbated by the pandemic – which transformed industry practices and accelerated 10 years of planned technological change in workplaces in less than a year. 

Worse, the pandemic’s impacts were uneven. Workers of color are overrepresented both in frontline, essential jobs and in industries highly affected by the economic shutdown. These inequities were driven by generations of policies that excluded people of color from educational and economic opportunities.

As our economy recovers from the most devastating economic crisis since the Great Depression, our recovery will depend (in part) on all workers having access to skills training that those growing industries desperately need. 

It’s time to adopt higher education policies that fully support working people’s needs, career goals, and economic mobility. Those policies should support the needs of small and medium local businesses that depend on a pipeline of trained, skilled workers. And, finally, by centering the needs of people of color we can begin to redress structural racism within our workforce education and training systems – and make college work for everyone – working people, local businesses, and our economy. 

We suggest four policy reforms to make college work better for working people:

1) Make debt free financial aid available to working students including for high-quality, short-term credential programs.

Our financial aid policies don’t always acknowledge the realities of today’s students. And policies don’t always reflect people’s real higher education goals – particularly for working adults who want to earn credentials to further their career.

High-quality non-degree credentials can be a bridge to meaningful employment, career advancement, higher pay, and future education and job opportunities. But many adults can’t pursue in-demand short-term credentials without taking on debt because these programs are typically excluded from federal and state-funded tuition assistance. Even though public tuition assistance is more available for career-related degree programs, working people face barriers to pursuing these programs debt-free.

Given that the racial wealth gap leaves Black and Latinx families with fewer financial resources for higher education, this issue disproportionately affects students of color.

Policymakers should expand debt-free tuition assistance to all postsecondary programs and credentials, including shorter-term programs offered by nonprofit institutions that meet specific quality standards. These standards should ensure that credentials support students in stepping into a quality career, not keep them in a low-wage job. Increased access to high-quality credential programs would also help small businesses who need to hire skilled local workers as the economy recovers.

2) Ensure all students have the support services, academic support, and career advising they need to succeed.

The cost of attending college goes beyond tuition. Expenses like books and supplies, equipment, transportation, housing, food, and childcare add up; and they can be prohibitive for adults who are already covering the costs of supporting a family on a limited budget.

Even after receiving federal and state grant aid, many students have significant unmet financial needs that may result in housing or food-insecurity. Job loss due to the pandemic worsened basic needs insecurity – especially for students of color. In 2020, basic needs insecurity affected 71percent of African American students compared to 52 percent of White students.

Policymakers should create greater access to programs that help adult students meet their basic needs and care for their families, direct funding to student supportive services, and incentivize partnerships between higher education institutions and community-based organizations with deep knowledge of their local communities.

In addition, while many working students who are balancing life and school benefit from targeted academic support and career advising, community and technical colleges often lack the resources to provide these services and fully integrate them into training programs.   

While higher education leaders across the country are working hard to implement career pathway models that provide students with these services, their efforts require more public investment. 

Policymakers should dedicate resources for postsecondary institutions to boost academic supports and to hire and train student advisors who can help students to find the right programs for their life and employment needs and career goals – as well as combat educational tracking and address other barriers erected by structural racism.

3)  Support sector partnerships between colleges and industry leaders to meet business demand and ensure program graduates get good jobs.

To meet working adults’ career goals and the needs of local businesses, Community colleges can engage in industry partnerships with local businesses, labor organizations, community organizations, and others. Together, they can ensure that training programs connect students to careers in local industries that offer quality jobs and advancement opportunities.  

These partnerships help workers and businesses by supporting industry-specific training, hiring, and upskilling strategies. They can be a key strategy foradvancing racial equity in the workforceby countering occupational segregation, racial homogeneity of hiring networks, and hiring practices with discriminatory impacts.

Policymakers should invest in industry partnerships, providing specific incentives and technical assistance to those that focus on reducing racial, gender, and other equity gaps to increase economic opportunities for workers overlooked by traditional hiring and recruitment.

4) Make higher education and workforce outcomes data comprehensive and transparent. 

When we have good data, we can use it to hold our policymakers accountable for better, more equitable skills training outcomes. Investments in postsecondary education pay off for students and businesses – but we lack detailed outcomes data on individual programs that would help us understand which programs are successful and equitable. 

Higher education is closely linked with finding success in the labor market – so program-level outcomes reporting for all students, disaggregated by race and ethnicity, on employment, earnings, and credential attainment should be available to students, parents, employers and policymakers so that individuals know which programs place people in jobs and raise their incomes. 

Good data helps working adults know what training and credentials will help them succeed in growing industries and upgrade their skills to find work in the new economy. 

Data allows us to measure return on investment, support program improvements when necessary, and empower students with data to inform their education and career decisions. And employment and wage outcomes of credentials holders should be publicly available and disaggregated by race, ethnicity, gender, and other characteristics that can help find and close equity gaps.  

States should establish robust quality criteria for eligible training providers and require data disaggregation of employment and wage outcomes for participants of training programs by race and ethnicity to ensure that participants of color are being served equitably across and within eligible training programs.


We have made progress on state and national levels

Thanks to the last decade of advocacy by our coalition – we are making progress on the state and national policy fronts to make college work for working people and businesses.

On the state level:

  • In just the last year, the Louisiana SkillSPAN coalition helped obtain an $11 million increase in GO grants, one of the state’s key financial aid programs. Go Grants are need-based and designed to support non-traditional students, such as working adults.
  • The Michigan SkillSPAN coalition successfully pushed for $80 million for both MI Reconnect and Futures for Frontliners programs in fiscal year 2022. MI reconnect is a scholarship program that enables Michiganders 25 and older to attend community college tuition-free, while the Futures for Frontliners is a scholarship for Michiganders without college degrees who worked in essential industries during the COVID-19 shutdown in Spring 2020.
  • In the support services arena, last year, in Oregon, advocacy efforts by the SkillSPAN coalition led the legislature to dedicate funding to create a benefits navigator position at every community college and public university to help students access SNAP food benefits, STEP (SNAP E&T program), housing assistance, and other basic needs resources.

We are currently working with 16 states to develop and advance a set of policies focused on increasing equitable access to postsecondary and workforce education for working people. These technical assistance and peer-to-peer learning initiatives include states who are committed to:

  • Adopting frameworks for defining and measuring quality non-degree credentials, including implementing data policies and reporting tools that advance equity and inclusion.
  • Identifying and implementing policies to support equitable access to and attainment of these quality non-degree credentials and related career pathway programs.
  • Expanding state financial assistance for quality non-degree credentials, including leveraging SNAP E&T funds to support community college career pathway programs.


On the national level, several bills have been introduced in Congress that we’ll be advocating for over the next year.

  • The bipartisan JOBS Act, introduced by Senators Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Rob Portman (R-OH) is legislation that would make it easier for working adults and other low-income students to get Pell Grants for high-quality, short-term training programs. It would be a critical step towards ending outdated barriers to Pell, while also making sure that short-term postsecondary programs are aligned with needs of local and regional industries. 
  • The College Transparency Act is a bipartisan, bicameral bill that would help students, families, policymakers, institutions, and employers to make informed decisions by providing more complete information about college access, success, costs, and outcomes. It would require colleges to collect and give data to the Department of Education about student enrollment, persistence, transfer, and completion measures for all programs and degree levels. The data would also be disaggregated by demographics, including race and ethnicity, gender, and age. The data would allow federal agencies to calculate postgraduate outcomes, such as income and career prospects and make information available on how colleges perform at educating students and moving them toward in-demand jobs.
  • The America COMPETES Act of 2022 introduced in the House would authorize billions of dollars in research investments to better enable the United States to compete with China. It includes language from both the JOBS Act and the College Transparency Act. The Senate version of the bill, the United States Innovation and Competition Act of 2021 (USICA), does not include the College Transparency Act.
  • The Building U.S. Infrastructure by Leveraging Demands for Skills (BUILDS) Act is a bipartisan bill sponsored by Senators Kaine (D-VA) and Portman (R-OH) in the Senate and Representatives Bonamici (D-OR), Thompson (R-PA), and Langevin (D-RI) in the House. The legislation proposes support for sector partnerships aligned with in-demand infrastructure jobs and skills training. It would also provide supportive services for participants in work-based learning opportunities created under the legislation.
  • The Assisting Community Colleges in Educating Skilled Students (ACCESS) to Careers Act is a bipartisan bill sponsored by Senators Kaine (D-VA) and Young (R-IN) in the Senate. It builds upon the previously funded TAA (Trade Adjustment Assistance) Community College and Career Training Grant program. The bill provides grants to community colleges and consortia of colleges to scale in-demand education and training programs, support career pathways, and provide support services to students.
  • The Gateways to Careers Act is a bipartisan bill sponsored by Senators Hassan (D-NY), Young (R-IN), Collins (R-ME), and Kaine (D-VA) in the Senate, and Representatives Adams (D-NC), Scott (D-GA), Omar (D-MN), Delgado (D-NY), and Krishnamoorthi (D-IL) in the House. The bill creates a new career pathways grant program under the Higher Education Act aimed at supporting community college and career and technical education students.

Join our Campaign!

Policymakers have the power to bring our higher education policies into the 21st century to create more equitable economic mobility for working people (especially those without postsecondary credentials) while also supporting economic growth.  Will you join our campaign and urge policymakers to Make College Work today?