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Four Ways Postsecondary Education Can Bridge the Skills Gap

This story is the first in a seven part editorial series exploring the balance between student learning and job skills.

This story is the first in a six part editorial series exploring the balance between student learning and job skills. We’re asking leaders and thinkers in education and technology fields: Can America educate its way out of the skills gap? This series is brought to you by GOOD, with support from Apollo Group. Learn more about our efforts to bridge the skills gap at Coding for GOOD.

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A lot of the rhetoric about the best way to jump-start the nation's weak recovery focuses on the so-called "skills mismatch" issue—that is, the problem when people in the labor pool lack the skills that the market demands. More than two-thirds of the roughly 12 million people looking for work in September 2012 are unemployed due to the lack of jobs, but even though the effects of this mismatch have been exaggerated, skills mismatch is a significant problem. And it's a problem that community colleges, long considered the backwater of higher education, are ideally positioned to address.

The current skills mismatch issue is at the forefront of the discussion, due to several factors. First, the Great Recession has accelerated a long-term trend in which the number of jobs requiring only a high school diploma has been shrinking. In 1973, only 28 percent of all U.S. jobs required postsecondary training. By 2010, that number had risen to 60 percent—and it’s only going to continue rising.

Secondly, our analysis (PDF) of National Bureau of Employment Research data indicates that roughly 2.1 million of the additional 7.2 million Americans who are still unemployed from the recession can trace their situation to the fact that they lack the skills needed for today’s workplace. Of that 2.1 million, some 1.5 million could be placed in good jobs that require more than high school training but less than a Bachelor’s Degree. These jobs are what economists call “middle jobs” and have the reputation of being inferior to the more prestigious and better-paying B.A. level careers. This is just bad press, it is not a case of "B.A. = good jobs" and "community college = bad jobs." Roughly 21 percent of all jobs can be considered "good middle jobs"—and of those, 29 million pay at least $35,000 a year. Nearly 10 million pay more than $50,000, and a significant number actually pay more than entry-level jobs requiring a Bachelor’s Degree. These middle jobs are essential to how we address the "skills gap" and community colleges are ideally positioned to train people for those jobs.

But at the same time community colleges are poised to play an increasingly important role in the economy, their funding levels and basic missions have come under increasing scrutiny.

Budget constraints and massive cuts across the board have resulted in increased public pressure to make all state-funded institutions of higher education more accountable for student success. Access to state funding is now largely tied to the completion metrics. Not only these institutions being held to the task of ensuring adequate graduation rates, but they are now being asked to ensure that those students graduate in a timely fashion and that most of them find jobs in their chosen field.

With completion rates as the new criterion of success, community colleges run the risk of no longer being open access—a safe haven for students looking to complete remedial work, basic education or professional training that may or may not lead to a piece of paper certifying some kind of “completion” of a course of study. If community colleges are to remain in business under the new rules, the push for efficiency will inevitably trump the goal of equity.

What should be done to address these looming issues? Here are four suggestions:

  • Community colleges should be allowed to have lower graduation rates than current metrics suggest—especially if they are tasked with having open access and non-traditional students. This metric should offer a balance between the two goals of open access and high completion rates.
  • Funding levels should be attached to programs, not students, and should reflect the varying needs of those programs. For example, nursing programs that require access to very expensive technical equipment should be funded at a higher level than, say, courses in the liberal arts.
  • Strengthening the high school-to-college pipeline could reduce the number of students in community colleges who need remedial help, and ultimately lead to better completion rates for everyone.
  • Both community colleges and four-year institutions should provide more concrete data about the money value of college courses, programs and majors. The expected payoff, long-term costs and value of a college major should be information that all colleges make available to every potential and current student.
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Community colleges will be of increasing importance in various ways, including offering mid-career training to professionals who need to stay current in their fields. If postsecondary education is the new prerequisite for joining the middle class, a commitment to lifelong learning is increasingly becoming the new prerequisite for staying there. Postsecondary education is still relevant in today’s economy. And while there are several pathways to success that do not include a four-year degree, more and more, the middle-wage and middle-class job require some level of postsecondary education.

Anthony Carnevale is Director and Research Professor of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW). Nicole Smith is Research Professor and Senior Economist at the CEW. The CEW is an independent, nonprofit research institution that studies the link between education, careers, and workforce demands.

Photo via Shutterstock

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