Ensuring That Degrees Lead to Labor Market Success

By Veronica Goodman

Last week, the White House unveiled President Biden’s American Families Plan, which includes $109 billion for two years of free community college with the aim that more Americans have access to a degree or certification. Americans generally support making public colleges and universities tuition free, with the bulk of support coming from women, young people, and Black and Hispanic adults. Already, there are reports from states like Michigan, which launched a free community college program last year, and was inundated with applications and interest. However, policymakers need to ensure that we do not just increase the quantity of degrees, but their quality and how schools help match students with high-value, in-demand credentials linked to the labor market.

The package recognizes that access alone will not improve low completion rates, and alongside the community college expansion, it calls for a $62 billion investment in “evidence-based strategies to strengthen completion and retention rates at community colleges and institutions that serve students” who have historically been unlikely to complete a postsecondary degree. Many community college students do not complete their degrees or end up with credentials with “low labor market value” that can leave students with significant debt and set up to default on their loans.

For decades, community colleges have educated a significant portion of low- and middle-income Americans, yet have historically been underfunded and overlooked compared to public and private four-year colleges. For millions, community colleges have served as their pathway to the middle class and this proposal by the Administration is fulfilling President Biden’s campaign promise to expand economic opportunity for Americans across the distribution. Experts have suggested that with extra funding, community colleges could spur economic mobility if investments go toward career counselors, mental health resources, and academic coaching which would increase enrollment and completion of degrees.

Yet, completion rates alone should not be the measure of success. A key goal of community colleges, and postsecondary education generally, should be the labor market outcomes of their graduating classes. If there is to be an education expansion in community colleges, it should be paired with accountability systems that track outcomes and link funding to programs that are seeing results. Additionally, there needs to be more communication across the network of community colleges as to what practices are working so that evidence can be shared and disseminated widely.

Community colleges in particular are well-poised to build robust partnerships with local employers to place students in high-demand industries with good wages, such as healthcare and information technology. Programs that have apprenticeships, job training, or work-based learning as part of the curriculum have been shown to better set up students for economic success. The American Jobs Plan also proposes a $100 billion investment in workforce development to help connect workers to jobs in the ongoing post-pandemic recovery. These efforts should be coordinated to ensure that U.S. job training and placement programs work much more effectively and reach dislocated workers and those who stand to benefit the most, such as women and Black and Hispanic workers.

Lastly, schools and policymakers should also be thinking outside of the box for how to meet students where they are and community colleges are not always the answer for every student. Many students face challenges at home or at work that make it difficult for them to complete their degrees. New initiatives, such as Degrees of Freedom in Vermont, are experimenting with innovative models to reach low-income and first-generation college students with hybrid late high school, early college experiences. These capitalize on lessons learned from the pandemic, such as virtual learning experiences, to pioneer new approaches.

A college degree will also not be the path to a successful career for every American. In fact, among recent high school graduates ages 16 to 24, 30 percent do not enroll in any postsecondary education, and only 60 percent of students in two- or four-year programs graduate within six years. To that end, President Biden has repeatedly stated that 90 percent of the opportunities created by the American Jobs Plan, a major public investment in expanding apprenticeships and job training programs, do not require a college degree. These are proven non-college career pathways that give more students a path to the middle class. Policymakers will need to consider these in tandem with free community college if we are to offer options to a vast majority of America’s workers.

The Biden administration is right to call for major national investment in educating and training young workers, many of whom have lost a year of their lives to the pandemic. But now it’s time for the administration and Congress to think harder about how to maximize the impact of whatever lawmakers eventually pass. The kind of transformative change that the President is prioritizing requires that we think beyond the old systems of workforce development and education to a more diverse set of career pathways. The focus should be on effective, evidence-based approaches paired with innovation and accountability for results.