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Creating opportunities that will lead to a sustaining wage, economic mobility

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This Election Day, exit polling showed that voters’ overwhelming motivations were economic worries. The next Congress has a voter mandate to work with the White House to move quickly to enact policies that will lower costs for families. While lowering daily expenses in the short-term are needed, true economic recovery must also include pathways for people to earn the education, training, and development opportunities that will lead to a sustaining wage and economic mobility. This, too, must be high on the next Congress’ to-do list, particularly for Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Bill Cassidy (R-La.) as they take their new leadership roles on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Access to learning after high school has never been equal or equitable in the United States. This leaves too many out of the American Dream and without the chance for economic stability and mobility, especially in times of crisis. The pandemic and the resulting economic shifts has only exacerbated this; more than 40 percent of those who lost their jobs in 2020 were those earning less than $40,000 per year. Moreover, those with a high school degree or less were displaced at nearly three times the rate as those with a bachelor’s degree. 

Notably, 39 million Americans went to college but left without a degree–39 million Americans who are lacking a key to economic mobility by not finishing college, who invested in their higher education but can’t reap the benefits a diploma brings. This is the reality for nearly 1 in 5 Americans. Worse, this number has spiked since COVID-19, rising nearly 10 percent. (Another way to view this population: colleges and universities fail to graduate 40 percent of their students.)  

In addition, 70 percent of today’s students don’t fit the stereotype of a young 20 something playing frisbee on the quad. Many of today’s students are working adults who are pursuing higher education — through programs and credentials, as well as traditional degrees — while also balancing work and family obligations. We need real investments in skills development, including by expanding federal student aid to high quality, short-term training programs setting workers, businesses, and our economy up for success.

The new Congress has an opportunity to modernize our approach to learning and working. For too long, we’ve approached this as a binary choice: you’re in college or you have a job. But today, a strengthened economy demands rethinking how we best prepare future workforces. To start, we must have a “yes, and” ethos where learning is valued regardless of where it happens – a classroom, an apprenticeship, on the job, and where the path to and through learning and work is not linear. This in turn will foster stronger interconnectedness between employers and educators – especially with this nation’s 1,043 community colleges.  

In our view, there are currently too many “chutes” — where people hit roadblocks to economic mobility — and too few “ladders” supporting achievement of learning and economic goals. The good news is that we know how to create more ladders. We have the tools, from supporting work-based programs and stackable credentials, to more transparent and comprehensive transfer of credit policies and “resetting” academic performance standards for returning learners. We urge Congress to create ladders and widen paths — by making tuition aid more accessible to those who are working and investing in college and industry partnerships to connect graduates with quality jobs and promotions. A four-year college degree must not be viewed as the sole route to success and mobility. We need congressional champions to push for these policies and help us widen the path with even stronger tools for today’s learners and working people and their journeys to the workforce.

Ensuring a stable economy will take many forms; learning must be part of it. This is a critical time for this discussion, recognizing the massive economic displacement due to the global pandemic and paying concerted attention to improving equity outcomes for student populations. We are calling upon Congress for policy action in a post-pandemic economy whose post-secondary student demographic looks nothing like it did 50 years ago.

Decisions made by state and federal policymakers over the next year are an opportunity to achieve workforce development policy changes that contribute to a more inclusive and equitable economy for working people and the employers that hire them. How we implement federal recovery investments will lay the groundwork for new, consistent federal investments in skills training, changes to other major federal policies, and for the workforce development strategies that states, and localities pursue for years to come.

We represent educators, employers, and advocates — and we believe changing federal policy to help today’s learners is an urgent, bipartisan issue and the combined efforts of employers and institutions of higher learning can affect real change. Our new Congress must do some building of its own: create more ladders connecting school and work, and give Americans the chance for economic mobility. Widening the path for learners will offer families upward economic mobility and help our workforce expand its skilled ranks.

Julie Peller is the Executive Director of Higher Learning Advocates and Andy Van Kleunen is the Chief Executive Officer of National Skills Coalition.

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