Colleges Must Respond to America’s Skill-Based Economy

column | Workforce Training

Colleges Must Respond to America’s Skill-Based Economy

By Mordecai I. Brownlee (Columnist)     Oct 23, 2023

Colleges Must Respond to America’s Skill-Based Economy

Back in March of this year, EdSurge published my article outlining the nearly 400-year history of higher education in America, how that past shapes the way the country views colleges today, and why microcredentials, while critical to the future of the U.S. economy, are causing a dilemma for the academy. Since then, I have enjoyed serving on various panels like those with the Colorado Business Roundtable discussing the future of higher education and its intersection with economic and workforce needs.

Several critical themes have emerged from these conversations that create burdens for workforce partners and higher education institutions. For one, agreement around the purpose of higher education is fragmented. In 2019, Brandon Busteed penned an article for Forbes that beautifully describes what I have witnessed in these discussions. Busteed described a "decidedly false dichotomy" where some argue that higher education is about preparing a person for work versus, more broadly, preparing a person for success. While I have enjoyed the dialogue, the fact remains that this intellectual discourse is being held amongst some of the most privileged and well-credentialed persons in society.

In these conversations, another critical theme emerges: the need for more decision-makers to understand that U.S. population growth has nearly flatlined. It is vital to note that this trend is NOT a blip but the result of a steady decline, and that higher education as a whole must address it. One implication is a recent prediction by the Bureau of Labor Statistics that the labor force participation rate may fall from 62.2 percent in 2022 to 60.4 percent in 2032. A second implication is the absence of sufficient numbers of workers in professions such as health services, trade, and hospitality. According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, as of June 2023, the national labor force participation rate was 0.7 percentage points below pre-pandemic levels. That equates to 1.9 million workers who have left the workforce since the pandemic’s start in early spring 2020.

The lack of an available and prepared workforce in America adds unnecessary fuel to the fire of poverty that burns uncontrollably throughout our communities, and that leaders don’t seem to feel an urgency to extinguish. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Poverty in the United States: 2022 report, the supplemental poverty measure (SPM) rate in 2022 was 12.4 percent. This increase of 4.6 percentage points from 2021 represents the first increase in the overall SPM poverty rate since 2010. Furthermore, the SPM child poverty rate more than doubled, from 5.2 percent in 2021 to 12.4 percent in 2022.

To address our children’s hunger and our communities’ poverty, our educational system must be redesigned to remove the boundaries between high school, college and careers so that more Americans can train for and secure employment that will sustain them.

In 2021, Jobs for the Future outlined a pathway toward realizing such a revolution in The Big Blur report, which argues for a radical restructuring of education for grades 11 through 14 by erasing the arbitrary dividing line between high school and college. Ideas for accomplishing this include courses and work experiences for students designed for career preparation. Joel Vargas, contributing author to this report and JFF executive, spoke at length about his personal life story and reason for serving as an ambassador for educational redesign on my Discovering Your Mission podcast earlier this year. He said that, “We have to change the [educational] systems that students experience, because it is pretty obvious, our systems are designed to work against students as a whole.”

As a Policy Leadership Trust member of JFF, the Community College of Aurora (where I serve as president) has served as a national leader in the work to apply higher education to drive social and economic mobility in today’s society by aligning student learning outcomes directly with workforce needs. Such goals are achieved when the institution understands its responsibility in the fight to eliminate poverty and support equitable educational attainment by providing our students with key skills that are relevant and transferable throughout industries.

This commitment to student success is what students look for most, according to the Strada Education Foundation. In its most recent nationally representative study of more than 3,200 people who completed bachelor’s degrees since 2002, Strada found that graduates who reported they developed key skills during college earned $8,700 more in their first year after graduation than their peers who reported lower levels of skill development through college. As Americans’ confidence in higher education has fallen, and its students have amassed more than $1.7 trillion in student debt, institutions must focus on providing the tools critical to thrive in a skills-based economy.

This year, the Community College of Aurora hosted U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, the Departments of Transportation, Energy, Commerce, and Labor, along with several national, state, and local officials for the Biden-Harris Administration’s nationwide Unlocking Pathways Summit series, which focused on helping young Americans access good-paying jobs. One component, Unlocking Career Success, is an interagency initiative that reimagines how our nation’s high schools prepare all students to thrive in their future careers. Guided by the four keys of dual enrollment, work-based learning, workforce credentials, and career advising and navigation, this initiative, in collaboration with JFF, aims to evangelize the need to revolutionize the American education and higher education systems.

The future of America depends on our ability as a community of educators, workforce partners, governmental agencies, and legislators to work together to develop seamless academic and career pathways for more students. Together, we can unlock upward social and economic mobility for our youth and for working adults. Failure is not an option; America is depending on us.

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