Making College Work for Working People

The COVID-19 pandemic emphasized the vital role that working people play in our nation and economy. Working people prepare hospital equipment and treat patients; they manufacture and distribute essential goods; they keep the internet and other critical utilities operating. 

While scores of working people have kept our country running during the pandemic, millions of others lost their jobs as businesses in high-contact industries like hospitality and retail shut down. At the end of 2020, more than 10 million Americans were unemployed with 3.7 million suffering permanent job loss.

The impact of the pandemic recession wasn’t even. Workers of color were overrepresented both in frontline, essential jobs and in industries highly affected by the economic shutdown. These inequities are not arbitrary. They are the result of generations of policies that excluded and limited people of color from educational and economic opportunities.

As federal and state policymakers take action to mend our economy, they have the chance to fix policies so that working people, especially those without postsecondary credentials, can thrive. Rebuilding an economy that values the essential contributions of working people will require a wide variety of policy changes. At National Skills Coalition, we believe that making college work for working people should be part of that larger effort.

Most adults who want to enroll in postsecondary education and training are looking to build additional skills to advance their careers. Some lost their jobs during the pandemic and are looking to train for entirely new and better ones as the economy comes back. Others are looking to rapidly reskill within their current careers to adapt to industry and technological changes brought on by the pandemic. Many will pursue training while raising families, working, or both in order to secure a better economic future. Here’s the challenge: our higher education policies weren’t created to support their success. 

It’s time to adopt higher education policies that fully support working people’s needs, career goals, and economic mobility. In doing so, we must also redress structural racism within our workforce education and training systems. By centering the needs of workers of color, we can make college work for everyone. 

We suggest four policy reforms to make college work better for working people:

  • Make tuition assistance available for high-quality credential programs. Our financial aid policies don’t reflect the higher education goals of many working adults who want to earn a credential to further their career. High-quality non-degree credentials are a bridge to meaningful employment, career advancement, higher pay, and future education and job opportunities. Many adults cannot pursue them without taking on debt because these programs are typically excluded from federal and state-funded tuition assistance. This issue disproportionately impacts students of color given that the racial wealth gap leaves Black and Latinx families with fewer financial resources for higher education. Policymakers should expand debt-free tuition assistance to postsecondary credential programs offered by nonprofit providers that meet specific quality standards. These standards should ensure that credentials support students in stepping into a quality career, not keep them in a low-wage job. Increased access to high-quality credential programs would also benefit small businesses who need to hire skilled local workers as the economy recovers.  
  • Expand supportive services and career advising. For adults, the cost of attending college goes beyond tuition. Expenses like books and supplies, equipment, transportation and childcare add up –they can be prohibitive for adults who are already covering the costs of supporting a family on a limited budget. Job loss due to the pandemic exacerbated this challenge, particularly for students of color. In 2020, basic needs insecurity affected 71 percent of African American students compared to 52 percent of White students. Policymakers should create greater access to safety net programs for adult students, direct funding to student supportive services, and incent partnerships between higher education institutions and community-based organizations with deep knowledge of their local communities. Additionally, policymakers should dedicate resources for postsecondary institutions to hire and train student advisors who can meet working adults’ needs and career goals, combat educational tracking and steering, and address other barriers erected by structural racism. 
  • Invest in partnerships between community colleges and industry leaders. To meet working adults’ career goals, postsecondary training programs should train and connect students to careers in local industries that offer quality jobs and advancement opportunities. Community colleges can engage in industry partnerships with local businesses, labor organizations, community organizations, and others to ensure that postsecondary training does just that. These partnerships benefit workers and businesses by supporting industry-specific training, hiring, and upskilling strategies. They can be a key strategy for advancing racial equity in the workforce by countering occupational segregation, racial homogeneity of hiring networks, and hiring practices with discriminatory impacts. Policymakers should invest in industry partnerships, providing specific incentives and technical assistance to support equity-advancing practices. 
  • Measure outcomes of credential holders. Finally, we must know if our policies reforms are successful and equitable. Employment and wage outcomes of credentials holders should be publicly available and disaggregated by race, ethnicity, gender, and other characteristics that can help identify and close equity gaps. Good data also helps working adults know what training and credentials will help them succeed in growing industries and upgrade their skills to find work in the new economy.