Connecting Higher Education to the Workforce
State higher education systems serve as a key pipeline of workers into the labor force. But if college graduates are misaligned from the labor needs of employers, graduates may struggle to find work in their field of study and employers may struggle finding talent with the skills they need. States can seek ways to engage diverse populations that have historically been underrepresented in college enrollments, including people of color, people with disabilities, students from low-income households, etc. States are working on modernizing their higher education systems to address evolving industry needs and to make them more accessible and affordable.
Serving Today’s Diverse Higher Education Population
Today’s college student is less likely to be a traditional college freshman who just graduated from high school and is attending college full time. In fact, among today’s college students, almost 40% of students are 25 years old or older—and this percentage is growing every year. Today’s students are more diverse than any previous generation of college students, by age, race and income level. They are increasingly mobile, and many live off campus, with work and family responsibilities competing with their educational goals.
States are taking steps to identify and better support students who have been traditionally underserved by the higher education system.
- Oregon requires each community college and public university to establish a process for recommending and providing oversight for implementation of cultural competency standards for the institution and institution's employees to improve the inclusion of students, faculty, staff and administration from diverse backgrounds.
- Washington requires diversity, equity, inclusion and antiracism training and assessments at institutions of higher education.
- Kentucky expanded eligibility for the Work Ready Kentucky Scholarship Program to students with intellectual disabilities enrolled in comprehensive transition and postsecondary programs.
College Completion Rates
Too many students start college and don’t finish. New data from the National Student Clearinghouse finds the national six-year college completion rate reached just 62.2% in 2021. Students of color and those from low-income backgrounds complete college at lower levels than their peers. The National Center for Education Statistics indicates that 64% of white students, 40% of Black students, and 54% of Hispanic students graduate within six years. Income is a factor also. Students from low-poverty high schools were more than twice as likely to earn a degree within six years of high school graduation (53 percent) as their counterparts from high-poverty schools (21%).
Among the millions of students who do not receive a degree, many are left with student loan debt without the benefits of higher paying jobs or increased economic security. Some policymakers have suggested as many as 40% of student loan borrowers failed to earn a degree within six years, however that figure has come under some scrutiny.
Students struggle to complete their higher education pursuits for a variety of reasons, including lack of information and resources, financial challenges, family responsibilities and increasing costs. College completion strategies aim to help get students across the finish line and into careers by providing a variety of financial and wraparound services to support increased college graduation rates.
Accelerated Study in Associate Programs
City University of New York’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) is a highly effective initiative that provides individualized counseling and support to students, has doubled graduation rates for its participants, and serves students exclusively from low-income backgrounds who are at greatest risk of not completing college. ASAP's program design consists of four interrelated elements: removal of financial barriers to full-time study; provision of comprehensive support services; a structured pathway with clear expectations for students; and creation of a connected community of students and staff. Evaluations of CUNY ASAP by MDRC found that ASAP participation increased degree attainment by 18.3%, and the ASAP replication in Ohio showed similar effectiveness, with an overall 16% increase in three-year graduation rates.
Most state financial aid programs cover only tuition and fees. However, those costs constitute just a portion of what most students spend to attend public two- or four-year institutions. Beyond the cost of tuition are additional costs, including textbooks, transportation, childcare and living expenses such as food and housing. For some students, these costs equal more than tuition and fees.
Helping today’s student navigate available assistance with non-tuition costs is a growing area of state legislative activity. Strategies include creating homelessness liaisons, affordable housing initiatives, assistance connecting to public benefits and short-term emergency financial assistance.
- Illinois requires higher education institutions, including business, technical or vocational schools, to designate at least one employee to serve as a liaison between the institution and homeless students to assist in accessing resources.
- Maryland established a Hunger-Free Campus Grant Program to connect eligible students with SNAP application assistance and local SNAP retailers.
- Oregon requires each community college and public university to hire a benefits navigator to assist students in determining eligibility and applying for federal, state and local benefits programs, and creates a statewide consortium to enable coordination and develop best practices among benefits navigators across institutions.
- California authorizes the use of funding for the Student Equity and Achievement Program for the provision of emergency student financial assistance to eligible students to overcome unforeseen financial challenges that would directly affect a student's ability to persist in their course of study.
Improving the Higher Education to Career Pipeline
States are focusing on high-value credentials that lead to future employment and upskilling—giving workers new skills to meet new workforce demands—with greater transparency around the skills and knowledge required for in-demand jobs. In this time of rapid workplace change, states are requiring postsecondary institutions to provide timely, useful information about degree options and pathways that prepare students for jobs needed in their communities.
Ensuring that students have information about available credentials and their potential workplace value is a growing area of legislative activity.
- Connecticut requires the Office of Workforce Strategy to establish standards to designate certain credentials as “credentials of value.” These standards may include (1) meeting the workforce needs of Connecticut’s employers, (2) completion rates, (3) net cost, (4) whether the credential transfers to or stacks onto another credential of value, (5) average time to completion, and (6) types of employment opportunities and earnings available upon completion. The state’s chief workforce officer is to submit a biennial report about (1) in-demand credential and skills that lead to quality jobs, and (2) models and examples of associate degree programs that result in students earning an industry-recognized credential in twelve months that is a pathway to one or more bachelor’s degree programs.
- Michigan created the Michigan Reconnect Grant Act providing a financial aid program for residents seeking associate degrees of industry-recognized credentials that are portable and sought or accepted by multiple employers within an industry for purposes of recruitment, hiring or promotion.
Clarifying the Roadmap to a Career
With nearly 1 million unique credentials in the U.S., including diplomas, certificates, degrees, apprenticeships and licenses, it is often difficult for a student to understand the courses and programs of study or training they need to take to be prepared for their target career. Moreover, employers lack clarity about what skills workers bring to a job, and educators are challenged to keep up with changing requirements in the workplace. While 45 states have set attainment goals, most lack robust systems of information related to the credentials available within a state, including the credential program’s length and cost, competencies and job skills included in the credential, career pathway information, and earnings and employment outcomes.
State legislators are acting to ensure that information about credentials can be easily accessed, compared, and connected to other education and workforce data.
- Arkansas created a Higher Education Consumer Guide designed for use by prospective students and parents and legal guardians of prospective students at a state-supported institution of higher education, to include retention and graduation rates; cost of tuition; average amount borrowed and loan default rate; average number of semesters for completion of an associate's or bachelor's credential at the institution; job placement of students within the first three years of graduation; and information about income of college alumni.
- Kansas enacted the Students Right To Know Act to provide information on postsecondary education options and information to each student or each student's parents regarding degree prospectus, training information program report, and other information relevant to students understanding of potential earnings.
- Kentucky requires the Council on Postsecondary Education to annually compile data on in-demand jobs within the state and for each public postsecondary instruction, and each campus of the Community and Technical College System, to compile data relating to student successes and costs, and requires the Council to develop a delivery method to ensure access to information by prospective students.