- About NSC
- Skills Mismatch
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:
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.
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.
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 for advancing racial equity in the workforce by 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.
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.
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:
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:
On the national level, several bills have been introduced in Congress that we’ll be advocating for over the next year.
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?