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Legislators Explore Career-Ready Postsecondary Education Programs

NCSL’s Higher Education Institute brought lawmakers together to learn about creating career pathways and increasing skills-based opportunities.

By Andrew Smalley and Sunny Deye  |  January 26, 2024

With workforce issues once again at the top of state lawmakers’ agendas for the 2024 legislative session, 20 state higher education committee chairs convened at NCSL’s 2023 Higher Education Institute in Portland, Maine, to discuss strategies to support career-ready postsecondary education programs.

Legislators agreed that, with many of their states facing common challenges around improving postsecondary education system outcomes, they share opportunities to support costs beyond tuition, create career pathways and increase data transparency and accountability.

“Simplifying the routes and the pathways and putting fewer barriers in place, recognizing experience—all those things are incredibly important to pull people in and support returning adult learners,” Utah Sen. Ann Millner, co-chair of NCSL’s Higher Education Task Force, says.

“Simplifying the routes and the pathways and putting fewer barriers in place, recognizing experience—all those things are incredibly important to pull people in and support returning adult learners.”

—Utah Sen. Ann Millner

Nicole Smith, research professor and chief economist at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, focused on critical postsecondary enrollment and workforce trends, including emerging signs of AI disruption in the workplace. According to a recent report, the center expects the percentage of jobs requiring more than a high school diploma to grow from today’s estimate of 68% to 72% by 2031 as the country shifts even more toward a knowledge-based, tech-based economy.

Participants learned about state investments in short-term credential pathways from Stephanie Murphy, director of policy and research at HCM Strategists. They also heard from Blair Corcoran de Castillo, senior director of Opportunity@Work, about state actions to eliminate degree requirements and shift to skills-based hiring. At least 18 states have removed bachelor’s degree requirements from most or all public sector job requirements in the past two years. Finally, Colleen Falkenstern, senior research analyst for the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, shared the latest enrollment trends and projections to help lawmakers understand the postsecondary landscape and future student demographics.

A highlight of this year’s Higher Education Institute was a tour of nearby Southern Maine Community College, one of the state’s seven public community colleges, with nearly 6,000 students as of fall 2023. Maine and at least 20 other states offer last-dollar scholarships for students who attend an in-state community college.

“Maine’s community colleges do incredible work helping recent high school graduates and working adults to explore and find careers that are needed in the local workforce and around the country,” says Sen. Teresa Pierce, who serves on Maine’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee and is the Senate chair of the Joint Select Committee on Housing. “The seven community colleges do an outstanding job of helping people train and get the education they need for the many professions that are in demand across the state.”

Maine’s program, which began with legislation passed to provide tuition-free college to students during the pandemic, was recently extended to high school graduates through 2025. The program has helped boost enrollment across the state, during a time of fluctuating student enrollments nationally. In fall 2023, enrollment at Maine community colleges increased 16%, with 61% of students qualifying for the free college program. David Daigler, president of Maine’s community college system, spoke to lawmakers about the state’s work on pathways from early college to workforce training. He also highlighted partnerships with businesses, nonprofits and governments through the Maine Workforce Compact.

On the tour, legislators and staff visited several postsecondary career and technical education programs, including advanced manufacturing, automotive technology and nursing programs. Students from each program spoke about their experiences merging training in the classroom with real-world work experiences. Several mentioned the advantages of learning on the same equipment or software used by companies and businesses in the region. While some students enrolled at SMCC directly from high school, others spoke about returning to education for new career training after years in the workplace.

NCSL will continue to track career-ready and workforce development postsecondary education topics during the 2024 legislative session in the Postsecondary Bill Tracking Database.

Andrew Smalley is a senior policy specialist in NCSL’s Education Program.

Sunny Deye is an associate director in NCSL’s Education Program.

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