Americans need meaningful jobs. Learning beyond high school is the pathway to getting one.
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The election of Donald J. Trump in 2016 makes it impossible to continue to ignore America’s jobs problem. Trump’s economic rhetoric—couched in nationalism and a promise to return to the good old days—appealed to the increasing number of Americans who can’t find meaningful work, support their families, or ascend the economic ladder.

It’s no wonder. During the past three decades, low-cost labor has become more available and automation has made many middle-class jobs obsolete, creating sudden, sweeping economic change. And the policies that undergird how we educate our workforce have failed to catch up.  Most federal higher education laws are remnants of a bygone era.

Now officially in office, the Trump administration should abandon the fiery rhetoric of the campaign trail and begin exploring more effective solutions.  Those solutions don’t involve scaling back free trade or curbing immigration.  Even Mr. Trump’s ambitious plan to invest in infrastructure will not create permanent middle-class jobs. In fact, according to a new study from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, for many workers, especially men, those jobs will be temporary.  What we urgently need is to foster the talent the modern labor market requires by increasing the numbers of Americans with critical knowledge and skills acquired after high school. Yet, this has hardly come up.

Since 2011, the U.S. economy has added more than 11.5 million new jobs for workers with education beyond high school. For those with a high school diploma or less, only 80,000 jobs were added. Those numbers make clear we are moving deeper into the knowledge economy, and many Americans are unequipped to adapt.

Between now and 2025, about 24.2 million Americans are expected to complete an education beyond high school, whether a college degree, certificate, or industry certification. That is about 16.4 million Americans shy of what’s needed to fill jobs demanding higher skill levels.

We must educate a broader cross-section of people, from those who have lost manufacturing jobs to students who are first in their families to go to college. This won’t be easy. It will require a more thoughtful and coordinated approach to the array of learning opportunities available beyond high school.

We need to stop fixating on credit hours and bachelor’s degrees and instead make it easier for students to find the learning environment they need to succeed. Today, nearly all federal aid is tied to outmoded measures of academic progress, such as completing at least 12 credit hours of courses per semester. But it is impossible to know what learning these credits signify. Our time-based system makes it difficult for students to accelerate or slow down as needed, or to get credit for what they already know.

Our national dialogue and federal education policies focus on students pursuing four-year degrees. Bachelor’s programs are important, but there are myriad options students should explore. These choices include workforce certificates and industry certifications that lead to good-paying jobs and position people to continue their educations. The new administration and congressional leaders should champion these non-degree educational pathways and support efforts at the state and national levels to make students aware of them.  We are in desperate need of not only new education and labor policies aligned to a 21st century economy, but more integration and coordination between The Department of Education and The Department of Labor.

Programs that advance students based on demonstrations of mastery or proficiency are another option and offer potential as a better way to plan, organize, deliver, and support learning. Federal policymakers should embrace the responsible innovation that is going on in this area and make it easier to use federally guaranteed loans and Pell grants to pay for these programs.

Students need to know that the education they will receive is worth tradeoffs in time, money, and effort. In today’s marketplace, that’s difficult to figure out. For example, public community colleges award nearly half of all certificates, and about four of every 10 come from private, for-profit technical, vocational, business, and trade schools, making it difficult for students to compare options.

The federal government can play a vital role in informing consumers. It is in our national interest for public and private colleges and universities to be transparent about the true costs of their degree and certificate programs, the tradeoffs involved in borrowing money, and the likely options for employment and the ability to support themselves and their families if they finish. 

There is real momentum – and bipartisan support – for addressing Americans’ widespread concerns about obtaining good-paying jobs. President Trump and Congress should begin by smoothing the path to post-high school learning.

Merisotis is president and CEO of Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation and author of America Needs Talent: Attracting, Educating & Deploying the 21st Century Workforce.


The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.