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.

What factors should guide who gets Biden’s proposed billions for education and training?

President Biden’s “once in a generation” infrastructure plan isn’t just designed to build new highways, better broadband, and electric vehicles. It also promises to pump new life into education and training programs at colleges and organizations adjacent to higher ed. If anything close to this $2-trillion proposal passes, the funding could create a great amount of good for people especially hard hit by the pandemic — and maybe even improve social mobility.

But let’s face it, there’s also a big risk that the plan will throw a great amount of money at jobs-pathway programs that just aren’t as effective as they could be.

So if these education-and-training billions are indeed coming, how can colleges and policy makers be sure the money is well spent? And what new partnerships between colleges and these education-adjacent groups would be not just well-meaning, but also effective?

I know of no definitive guidance on this. Coincidentally, however, a paper being released by The Project on Workforce at Harvard University offers some interesting and provocative reference points. The paper evaluates 316 self-described innovative organizations now working at the seam between education and employment. That evaluation had nothing to do with the Biden plan; it was done in the wake of an open grant application for a program called Postsecondary Innovation for Equity, sponsored by New Profit, a Boston-based organization that assists nonprofits.

Colleges, of course, have already begun highlighting their efforts on the retraining front, as my colleague Scott Carlson recently reported. But with the Biden plan calling for spending some $100 billion in “proven work-force development programs,” the evaluation offers useful insights into another sector that is likely to play a part in America’s economic-recovery efforts. For colleges, the report might also serve as a best-practices blueprint, albeit a cautionary one.

That’s because the picture “Working to Learn paints of the 316 organizations isn’t particularly flattering. The findings, as one of the authors, Joseph Fuller, dryly told me, “show that we have a lot of opportunity for progress.”

For example, Fuller and his co-authors faulted the programs they examined because too few of them:

  • Built employer connections into their educational programs or offered education in work-based settings.
  • Offered wrap-around supports for participants, such as subsidies for transportation or child care.
  • Used technology extensively enough to make programs cost-effective and less reliant on philanthropy.
  • Incorporated the development of soft skills, which many employers value.
  • Assessed their work with either internal or outside evaluations.

At the same time, too many of the organizations were counting completion of their programs as a measure of success, rather than examining whether their participants had landed a job or completed a degree or other credential.

“A lot of social entrepreneurs get awfully quiet awfully fast when you want to talk about metrics and results,” said Fuller, a professor of management practice at Harvard Business School. Their passion for their mission is powerful, he said, but often it “creates a blind spot” around other important goals.

Taken together, the organizations’ methods would have been very familiar to social entrepreneurs circa 1995, Fuller said. At first I thought he meant they hadn’t fully embraced technology. But he was talking about the whole litany of findings. That was telling: In effect, he was arguing that in 2021, organizations — colleges included — that don’t employ most or all of the strategies cited above are decades out of sync with the needs of many of today’s learners.

I hesitate to draw too many conclusions from a single study. For one, the nonprofits evaluated aren’t representative of the entire education-and-employment sector, although the self-identified innovators are notable for being fast-growing (they served more than 2.6 million learners in 2019), relatively new on the scene, and deliberately focused on serving populations that have been historically underrepresented in college and in jobs that pay family-sustaining salaries.

Also, as New Profit’s entrepreneur-in-residence, Bill Jackson, said to me, it’s probably not fair to draw too many conclusions from a study faulting these organizations when the nation’s overall work-force system itself hasn’t adapted much to promote broader opportunity. “The system,” Jackson noted, “has not been designed to serve the majority of learners who are seeking upward mobility.”

Still, I think it’s healthy to set a bar for what education-and-employment organizations ought to be doing, especially with the potential for billions of dollars soon to be sloshing around this sector. And the “Working to Learn” report does identify some key approaches.

We cannot overlook equity.

Of course those can’t be the only considerations, other experts in job training reminded me, especially because the pandemic has hit low-income populations and Black, Hispanic, and Native American people disproportionately hard. So what else do we need to keep in mind?

“No. 1,” said Amy Ellen Duke-Benfield, a senior fellow at the National Skills Coalition, should be a focus on a racial and economic equity, because as the fallout from Covid-19 has shown: “The economy is pretty inequitable.” And with groups like the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce noting that the majority of new jobs created by the infrastructure plan would be in male-dominated fields, I hope that education-and-training programs don’t forget outreach to women.

Affordability, too, needs to be paramount, Duke-Benfield said. The more that organizations can offer programs at a low cost or no cost to participants, the better.

Three other elements high on her list:

  • A focus on teaching digital literacy. That’s a theme I highlighted in December, but it bears repeating. To equip people to advance at work, Duke-Benfield said, a lack of digital literacy is “a bigger barrier than a lot of folks are aware of.”
  • Serving people at all stages of their working lives, not just younger people entering the work force.
  • A strong “data component” to assess which programs work best for learners from various backgrounds.

Will any or many of these ideas get traction if Biden’s American Jobs Plan comes to fruition? You got me. But the very fact that the plan specifically cites “proven” programs may be a promising sign, and Fuller, for one, is hopeful his report will “catch their attention” at the White House. (To learn more about the findings, attend Harvard’s virtual publicmeeting on April 28.)

For now, one thing is clear. Millions of unemployed and underemployed Americans are counting on something to change the trajectory of an economy that has left behind too many for too long. If this proposal is the big idea to (begin to) fix that, the stakes of carrying it out well become all the more urgent. As Duke-Benfield puts it, after all the country’s been through, “We can’t afford to mess this up.”

Quote of the Week.

“To be frank, they’re yesterday’s news.”

— Chris Sununu, governor of New Hampshire, dismissing the comments of 12 former trustees at state universities and community colleges who had publicly criticized his proposal to merge the two systems as a “hasty” move. He discussed the merger proposal during an editorial board meeting of the Seacoast Media Group.

Developments of note.

The American Council on Education has modernized its Military Guide, making it simpler for millions of active-duty service members and veterans to upload their Joint Services Transcripts — and for colleges to use the system to consider granting credit for the courses and credentials on those transcripts.

Although enrollment of Hispanic students declined this academic year, over the past decade, the number of institutions where at least one-quarter of students are Hispanic nearly doubled. Two-thirds of all Hispanic students are enrolled in those 569 Hispanic-serving institutions. Another 362 institutions where Hispanic students make up 15 to 25 percent of the undergraduate full-time-equivalent enrollment could soon join that list. Those data points are just a few of the findings in the latest analysis of Hispanic-serving institutions released this week by Excelencia in Education.

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.

Correction (4/7/2021, 11:46 a.m.): This newsletter referred to the Biden administration’s infrastructure plan as a $1.9-trillion proposal; it is a $2-trillion proposal. This newsletter has been updated.

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