Why we’re working to make college work

By Nicky Lauricella Coolberth, February 23, 2024

The pursuit of postsecondary credentials has long been a gateway to personal, professional, and economic growth that offers meaningful employment, career advancement, higher pay, and future opportunities for education and better jobs. In our rapidly evolving job market, where business’s demand for skills (especially digital skills) is constant, this is as true today as it has ever been.

Yet, there’s often misalignment between our current higher education policies – some of which were crafted more than fifty years ago – and the realities faced by today’s students. First, today’s students don’t fit the mold around which our higher education system was originally built. College students are now more likely to be working people, adult learners, students of color, first-generation students, immigrants, parents, and people who sit at the intersections of these identities. They’re often referred to as “new majority learners.”

Many of these students face challenges in accessing and completing college – they may not be able afford it without taking on student debt or may not have other kinds of support they need to succeed: things like affordable childcare, reliable transportation, or career and academic navigation. It’s also difficult for students to glean the information they need to make good decisions about how they invest their time and money in postsecondary education. For instance, how can students tell which education and training programs lead to good, in-demand jobs with family sustaining wages?

“New majority learners” are rewriting the narrative of who college students are and how our postsecondary education system can effectively support their success in college and the labor market. It’s time to modernize our higher education policies to fully support their needs, career goals, and economic mobility – as well as the needs of local businesses that depend on a pipeline of skilled workers.

Until we do this, our postsecondary education system will continue to contribute to the skills mismatch – where a lack of access to education and training hurts workers, business, and the economy. The skills mismatch is fueled, in part, by unequal access to education and training, occupational segregation, persistent discriminatory hiring practices, and other systemic barriers that prevent people – particularly women and people of color – from getting the skills training and education they need to land good jobs.

That’s what NSC’s Making College Work Campaign is all about: driving policy change that widens the path to postsecondary education, begins to redress structural racism in our education and training systems, and makes college work for everyone – for new majority learners, for business, and for our economy at large.

Through 2024 – we’ll be fighting for four policy reforms:

  • Cover the Costs of College: increase equitable access to financial aid and debt-free postsecondary pathways leading to economic mobility – including high-quality, short-term programs and pathways.
  • Support Students Holistically: ensure all students have the support they need to access and complete college – including access to public benefits, childcare, transportation, coaching, and navigation services.
  • Strengthen Partnerships & Create Career Pathways: support industry partnerships with community colleges and career pathways programs that lead to quality careers.
  • Use Data to Drive Equity and Outcomes: ensure equity, quality, transparency, and accountability through improved data collection, analysis, and reporting.  

Influencing federal lawmakers

On Capitol Hill, we are urging lawmakers to introduce and pass legislation that aligns with these reforms. For example, we will continue our decade-long advocacy of the bipartisan JOBS Act. This bill would provide access to Pell Grants for people enrolled in high-quality, short-term education and training programs. Our coalition has doggedly supported this bill for more than a decade and successfully elevated this policy issue into a major topic of discussion. Numerous national organizations are working with NSC to champion its passage, nearly half of the U.S. Senate has cosponsored this bipartisan legislation, and when Business Leaders United members fly into Washington D.C. to meet representatives and discuss policies that have the potential to grow their talent pipelines – it’s the policy solution they speak most passionately about.

We will also be working to pass the College Transparency Act (CTA) – a bill that works hand in glove with the JOBS Act by ensuring businesses, students, families, and policymakers have program level data on outcomes from education and training programs – in short: CTA is about quality – because it would shine a light on which education and training programs are the ones that lead to strong outcomes for students.

We’ll also be leading the fight for investments in industry partnerships (including working to introduce the SECTORS Act), career pathways legislation, and for high-quality skills training opportunities for SNAP participants, among other investments and legislation designed to make college work for working people and businesses.

And Speaking of Quality . . . We have an Imperative for that.

NSC has long worked with states to help state policymakers to define high-quality non-degree credentials, develop policy agendas to increase the number of residents with quality credentials, and develop the data policies that support their efforts – all so that policymakers feel confident in investing in non-degree credentials, students have confidence in their education and training programs, and employers know which programs effectively prepare people for careers. We’ve also worked with states to develop financial assistance policies that support the attainment of high-quality credentials that lead to good jobs and opportunities for further education and training. This work will continue through 2024 through new state engagement and TA initiatives that build on our existing relationships with state agency, system, policy, and college leaders. Most recently, in February 2024, NSC convened leaders from 11 states to learn from each other about how data can inform state investments, policies, and quality non-degree credential pathways in a way that benefits students and workers alike.

For more, read: The Non-Degree Credential Quality Imperative

In addition, we’re planning to continue the work on our recently launched Expanding College & Career Possibilities: A Policy Action Initiative. This is a dynamic peer learning and policy action community where skills advocates in 20 states will engage in peer learning, policy action labs, and access tailored technical assistance and research and promotion – all with the goal of increasing college affordability, holistic supports, and completion of quality non-degree credentials that offer pathways to quality careers and further education.

We’ve got more Making College Work content like this coming in 2024 – from publications and analyses to interviews and stories from students and skills advocates of all kinds, including community colleges, businesses, labor, from every corner of NSC’s vast network.

Throughout 2024, we’ll be calling upon you, our network, to help us make college work – including attending convenings, various opportunities to support legislation, and meeting in person with legislators on Capitol Hill at the 2024 Skills Summit. You can register for the Summit to learn more about upcoming skills legislation and share your expertise with federal policymakers and their staff.

We will also be bringing business leaders to Washington DC through Business Leaders United for Workforce Partnerships. They will speak with Members of Congress and the administration about how investments in short-term Pell and industry sector partnerships build strong businesses and local economies.

If you haven’t joined our Making College Work Campaign yet – sign up for our newsletter and be connected to all opportunities to shape and modernize higher education policies to ensure equitable college access, completion, and connection to quality careers that lead to economic mobility—and help businesses thrive by training talented workers that can fill in-demand jobs.