Creating opportunities that will lead to a sustaining wage, economic mobility

On Election Day, polls showed that the overwhelming motivation of voters was economic concern. The next Congress has a mandate from voters to work with the White House to move quickly to enact policies that will lower costs for families. While day-to-day spending needs to be reduced in the short term, true economic recovery must also include pathways for people to access education, training, and development opportunities that will lead to sustained earnings and economic mobility. This, too, should be high on the next Congressional to-do list, particularly for Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Bill Cassidy (R-La.) as they take on new leadership roles in Health, Education . , Work and Pensions Committee.

Access to post-secondary learning has never been equal or equitable in the United States. This leaves too much of the American dream and without the chance of economic stability and mobility, especially in times of crisis. The pandemic and the resulting economic changes have only exacerbated this; more than 40 percent of those who lost their jobs in 2020 were those who earned less than $40,000 a year. Moreover, those with a high school diploma or less moved at nearly three times the rate of those with a bachelor’s degree.

Notably, 39 million Americans went to college but left without a degree–39 million Americans missing a key to economic mobility by not finishing college, who invested in their higher education but cannot reap the benefits of a degree. This is the reality for nearly 1 in 5 Americans. Worse, that number has increased since COVID-19, rising nearly 10 percent. (Another way to look at this population: colleges and universities fail to graduate 40 percent of their students.)

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In addition, 70 percent of today’s students do not fit the stereotype of a young 20-something who plays frisbee on the quad. Many of today’s students are working adults pursuing higher education — through programs and credentials, as well as traditional degrees — while balancing work and family obligations. We need real investments in skills development, including expanding federal student aid to provide quality, short-term training programs that set up workers, businesses, and our economy for success.

The new Congress has an opportunity to modernize our approach to learning and work. For too long, we’ve approached this as a binary choice: you’re in college or you have a job. But today, a strengthening economy requires rethinking how we best prepare the workforce of the future. To begin with, we must have a “yes, and” ethos where learning is valued wherever it occurs – a classroom, an apprenticeship, at work, and where the path to and through learning and work is not linear. This will encourage greater interconnection between employers and educators – especially with the nation’s 1,043 community colleges.

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In our opinion, there are currently too many “falls” – where people hit roadblocks in economic mobility – and too few “ladders” to support the achievement of learning and economic goals. The good news is that we know how to create more ladders. We have the tools, from supporting work-based programs with stackable credentials, to more transparent and comprehensive transfer of credit policies and “resetting” academic performance standards for returning students. We urge Congress to create ladders and widen pathways — by making tuition aid more accessible to working people and investing in college and industry partnerships to connect graduates to quality jobs and promotions. A four-year college degree should not be viewed as the only route to success and mobility. We need congressional champions to push for these policies and help pave the way with stronger tools for today’s learners and workers and their journey into the workforce.

Ensuring a stable economy will take many forms; learning must be part of it. This is a critical time for this discussion, recognizing the massive economic displacement due to the global pandemic and paying concerted attention to improving equity outcomes for the student population. We are calling on Congress to take policy action in a post-pandemic economy where the demographics of post-secondary students are not the same as they were 50 years ago.

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State and federal policy decisions over the next year are an opportunity to achieve workforce development policy changes that contribute to a more inclusive and equitable economy for workers and employers who hire them. How we implement federal recovery investments will set the stage for consistent new federal investments in skills training, changes in other major federal policies, and for workforce development strategies that states and localities pursue for years to come.

We represent educators, employers, and advocates — and we believe changing federal policy to help today’s learners is an urgent, bipartisan issue, and the combined efforts of employers and institutions of higher learning can affect real change. Our new Congress must do some building work of its own: create more ladders that connect school and work, and give Americans the chance for economic mobility. Expanding pathways for learners will provide families with upward economic mobility and help our workforce expand its skill range.

Julie Peller is the Executive Director of Higher Learning Advocates and Andy Van Kleunen is the chief executive officer of National Skills Coalition.


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