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Connect with the people and ideas reshaping higher education, written by Goldie Blumenstyk. Delivered on Wednesdays.

December 9, 2020

From: Goldie Blumenstyk

Subject: The Edge: 7 Ways the Biden-Harris Administration Could Help Colleges Lift People’s Economic Prospects

I’m Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer at The Chronicle covering innovation in and around academe. Here’s what I’m thinking about this week.

How the next administration could use education to improve job prospects for millions.

The “Will he or won’t he?” question of whether soon-to-be-President Joe Biden will forgive student debt — and if so, how much? — is dominating the headlines, but it’s hardly the only higher-ed issue that policy shops and advocacy groups are weighing in on. Advice for the Biden-Harris administration is pouring in from all quarters, including calls for major new investments in broadband and focusing on programs or practices (like targeted scholarship programs) with proven success.

Considering the state of the economy, however, I’m drawn to ideas for how higher education can improve people’s job prospects — especially given the stark picture of unemployment and underemployment right now, with as many as 26 million workers directly hurt by the downturn. So this week I spoke with leaders at two organizations, the National Skills Coalition and Jobs for the Future, whose thinking informs a lot of my reporting.

Both groups have put forth a ton of suggestions (the Skills Coalition’s here, JFF’s here), and seven ideas stand out to me. I’ll highlight each one below, including a new “career-advising corps”; a College Scorecard-like online directory of career-training programs; and a new high-profile position in the Department of Education dedicated to community and technical colleges. Some of them (and many of the groups’ others) may not stand a chance because they’re too expensive, too unwieldy, or too controversial. Still, I think they’re worth exploring because they signal promising directions and might provoke new thinking.

Use funds allocated for new infrastructure projects to create education and training programs. Both groups make the case that this money could help displaced and underemployed workers qualify for jobs on such projects and then continue in those industries. Job-oriented training is already established in higher ed; in the last recession, community colleges and their students benefited greatly from a $2-billion federal grant program that supported career-focused credentials.

This particular idea, however, starts with infrastructure projects and sees them as catalysts to train people for jobs that would be ready and waiting for them, like expanding broadband systems or repairing bridges. JFF describes the approach as a 21st-century Works Progress Administration, complete with stackable credentials. The Skills Coalition calls it a “people-centered” infrastructure plan. After all the waiting for “Infrastructure Week” from President Trump in the last four years, this could bring double benefits to higher ed: new facilities and money for students.

Make it easier for people receiving food assistance or welfare benefits to attend college. Current requirements — like that a certain share of people receiving Temporary Assistance to Needy Families work a minimum number of hours — aren’t education policies per se, but they have a huge impact on whether millions of Americans can access meaningful educational programs that could lead to jobs that pay family-sustaining wages. “Work requirements don’t work,” said Katie Spiker, director of government affairs for the Skills Coalition. They often make it hard for low-income students, she said, to successfully complete courses while balancing work and family. Instead of administering such programs based on who’s working while getting the benefits, the coalition is urging, the incoming administration should look longer-term at recipients’ employment and salary outcomes.

I’m doubtful that this approach will fly with hardliners. But if the goal of assistance programs is to help people get off assistance, this gauge does seem more effective, not to mention more humane.

Create a career-advising corps and an online directory of all federally funded education and training programs. Both projects — the former through the Corporation for National and Community Service, and the latter using student-outcomes data — have the same goal: helping people figure out how to start or advance their careers. Maria Flynn, JFF’s president, told me that she sees the absence of any systemic approach to such guidance today as “one of the biggest gaps we have,” and I know from my reporting that many educators agree.

But I also see plenty of pitfalls here. An online directory would be a bear to develop (just ask the folks who did the College Scorecard), and an advising corps would need proper training, even if you believe that its members could take advantage of a growing body of digital career-navigation tools. In any event, said Flynn, it would be “a step up from the status quo.”

Promote “earn and learn” models. JFF has long been on this kick, pushing for changes in the Federal Work-Study program, for example, to make it easier for colleges to employ students on campus or in their communities, in jobs that complement their fields of study. Right now, that should include virtual opportunities, too, said Flynn. The Skills Coalition puts more emphasis on apprenticeships, although it wants the new administration to rescind a Trump-era model, which allows companies to skirt some longstanding Labor Department requirements. Despite those issues, Spiker noted, support for apprenticeships among colleges has been growing, and she’s hopeful that enthusiasm will continue.

Close the digital-literacy gap. Nearly every discussion about jobs these days touches on the question of digital skills, and yet some 48 million Americans have few or no digital skills, according to the Skills Coalition. Partnerships between industry groups and education providers, it says, “could ensure that education and training programs are responsive to the particular occupational digital-literacy needs of local employers.”

That last part — the occupational focus — is crucial, Spiker told me, especially for people whose job security depends on developing digital skills. For example, home health aides may need to use digital health records, and people working in hospitality or retail might need to undergo online training in Covid-19-safety protocols. Knowing how to text isn’t enough.

Establish a new assistant secretary of community and technical colleges post in the Education Department. I’m not fully sold on this recommendation by the Skills Coalition, but I decided to put it in, mostly to see how you all react. Initially, it seemed kind of in the weeds to me, even as I was sympathetic to how it could give the institutions that enroll more than 40 percent of undergraduates more visibility and stature within the department.

Talking to Spiker about some of the other priorities, though, was more convincing. If colleges — and particularly community colleges — are going to play a vital role in helping people dig out from the economic hole they’re in, a higher-ranking federal appointee would be poised to make the case with other agencies across the government. Of course Jill Biden is expected to be an advocate for community colleges as first lady, but I’m guessing she’ll assume a loftier portfolio, not some of this nitty-gritty.

That’s all for now. And yes, vaccines are on the way. But they’re not coming that fast to everyone. And you and your loved ones might not be at the front of the line. So please, continue to #MaskUp.

Got a tip you’d like to share or a question you’d like me to answer? Let me know at goldie@chronicle.com. If you have been forwarded this newsletter and would like to see past issues, find them here. To receive your own copy, free, register here. If you want to follow me on Twitter, @GoldieStandard is my handle.

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The veteran reporter Goldie Blumenstyk writes a weekly newsletter, The Edge, about the people, ideas, and trends changing higher education. Find her on Twitter @GoldieStandard. She is also the author of the bestselling book American Higher Education in Crisis? What Everyone Needs to Know.