Photo by Lisheng Chang on Unsplash

Welcome to another newsy issue, with a look at several efforts to create clearer pathways to careers for community college students, amid talk of doubling Pell awards and a $2 trillion federal jobs plan. Also new moves by LinkedIn and Microsoft (To get this newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.)

Going Beyond Linear Models

The concept of a competency marketplace may be closer to becoming a reality.

The idea, which author and investor Ryan Craig has been talking about for years, envisions a digital hub that brings together job seekers, employers, and postsecondary providers. It would allow learners to see the skills or competencies they need to land posted jobs, with the site then offering applicable online courses and programs from featured colleges and other providers. Employers could recruit completers directly from the hub.

LinkedIn is a frontrunner in creating a viable competency marketplace, announcing more moves in the space this week (see the Open Tabs, below). The Markle Foundation’s Skillful features a related model. And the new Unmudl is a project worth watching.

The “one-stop marketplace” launched in December features non-degree online and hybrid courses from seven partner community colleges, which pay to participate and then split revenue with Unmudl. More than 40 employers have hired out of Unmudl courses, and CVS Health has been user-testing the site.

“Employer subscribers will be able to target, message and hire learners from specific courses, and issue requests to one, some, or all of the colleges with the push of a button,” says Julian Alssid, chief marketplace engagement officer for, a public benefit corporation that created the course marketplace.

Unmudl seeks to help community colleges operate like a system across institutional and state boundaries, Alssid says. That could include an online certificate offered by a community college far away from a student, say for autonomous vehicle technicians, with a hands-on component required for the credential that the student could get from a nearby partner college.

Alssid previously led workforce initiatives for the Community College of Rhode Island and College for America, the competency-based arm of Southern New Hampshire University. He says Unmudl is aimed at working adults who need more training to advance in their careers but who lack information about the ROI of college offerings. And Alssid says the project is designed to scale nationwide.

“The world is changing and we’re not keeping up with the change,” says Alssid. “So many colleges are so dug in on focusing on traditional academic pathways.”

The Draw for Community Colleges

Arizona’s Pima Community College is a founding partner, offering about 20 courses on the site, including a continuing education introduction to autonomous vehicles for $262. Ian Roark, vice president of workforce development and strategic partnerships at Pima, says Unmudl allows the college to experiment with non-credit offerings for workers who want reskilling and upskilling.

The labor market does not stop at our colleges’ service-area boundaries,” he says. “Now, with non-credit offerings, we are not as bound by regional accreditation or tuition parameters as we are with credit-bearing programs, and thus we can be more creative and experimental.”

The popularity and usefulness of linear career and academic pathways will decrease in a “lattice-based labor market” that is changing rapidly, says Roark. Many employers and students feel the current system isn’t working, he says, noting deep equity gaps in higher ed and hiring. He says the partnership with Unmudl may be an example of where the higher education market is headed.

“We believe that these models increase job opportunities and upward mobility for more and more learners than traditional linear models alone will provide,” Roark says.

The Draw for CVS

The workforce group at CVS, which employs almost 300,000 workers, teams up with community colleges across the country on work-based learning experiences and academic program design, offering subject matter expertise, mock interviews, class visits, and curriculum support.

Even so, being able to reach a large audience of community colleges on a single platform like Unmudl is attractive to the company, according to Rick Laferriere, director of workforce initiatives for CVS Health.

One simple post on Unmudl can draw the attention of many community colleges and can bring new partners to the table for us to explore a partnership,” says Laferriere.

The Kicker

“When we can skip the process of researching which community colleges offer programming that prepares talent for the roles we need, and get in touch with the right person to explore a partnership quickly and easily,” Laferriere says, “it saves our team significant time and energy and connects us with a willing and enthusiastic educational partner.”

Doubling Pell and a $2T Jobs Plan

An unusually broad coalition of 1,200 organizations, including about 900 colleges and universities, are pushing for the U.S. Congress to double the maximum Pell Grant award, which is $6,495 for the current academic year. The group argues that the share of college costs covered by the grant is at an all-time low, and that students from low- and moderate-income families need more grant aid to pay for college.

“At its peak, the maximum grant covered three-quarters of the cost of attending a four-year public college. Now, it covers less than one-third of that cost,” the coalition wrote.

Observers say doubling Pell could happen. Policy makers and advocates want to do something big on college affordability. And Congress could increase Pell Grant awards in the budget (at an estimated cost of $350-$500 billion over 10 years) without creating new programs or having to work with states, which would be the case with a federal program for tuition-free college. And Pell Grants of roughly $13K essentially would make community college free anyhow, given low tuition rates in the sector, while also benefiting students who attend four-year colleges.

A recent report from the Brookings Institution makes the case that doubling Pell is a better solution to college affordability than a free-college program.

It is a well-targeted policy that will close the affordability gap for lower-income students, leading more of them to enroll,” wrote Phillip Levine, professor of economics at Wellesley College and the report’s author. “Free College is less desirable because it is poorly targeted, providing extensive benefits to higher-income students who will attend college anyway.”

Community College Spending in the Jobs Plan

The Biden White House on Wednesday released details on its proposed $2 trillion jobs plan. The 12K-word fact sheet didn’t mention free community college. But the Biden administration proposed several big-ticket items aimed at community colleges and job training, including:

  • $12 billion for community college facilities and technology. “States will be responsible for using the dollars to address both existing physical and technological infrastructure needs at community colleges and identifying strategies to address access to community college in education deserts,” the White House said.
  • Support for community college partnerships that build capacity to deliver job training programs based on in-demand skills.
  • $48 billion for workforce development infrastructure and worker protections. “This includes registered apprenticeships and pre-apprenticeships, creating one to two million new registered apprenticeships slots.”

The Kicker:

“By investing in community college infrastructure, apprenticeship programs, and training for dislocated workers, we will have an opportunity to rapidly build and scale degree and credential pathways that can immediately lead to high-demand jobs in our communities nationwide,” said Rebuilding America’s Middle Class, a coalition of community colleges.

Community College Enrollments

Topline numbers from last week’s High School Benchmarks report got a lot of attention, with the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center significantly adjusting its data on immediate college-going. The drop-off among the class of 2020 was less dramatic than early estimates indicated, but still 4.5 times greater than the decline pre-pandemic.

The new data included worrisome equity trends. High-poverty, low-income, and high-minority high schools all saw much steeper drops in college-going than did their wealthier and whiter counterparts. And urban and rural schools, which always lag behind their suburban peers, saw steeper declines as well.

Community colleges were hit particularly hard by these shifts, with immediate enrollment from low-income high schools dropping 18 percent at two-year institutions, compared to just under 5 percent at four-years.

Source: National Student Clearinghouse Research Center

Enrollment and Funding

For many community colleges, the hit to enrollment comes at the same as they are being asked to do more to power job growth. Jason Gonzales, a reporter who covers higher education with Chalkbeat Colorado in partnership with Open Campus, recently wrote about what this looks like in rural Craig, Colorado. The town of 9,000 will soon lose the coal power plant that has long underpinned its economy, and leaders there expect Colorado Northwestern Community College to play a key role in the town’s economic survival — retraining displaced workers and building a new, diverse job base. But, Gonzales writes, “limited funding for the college threatens that bootstrapping vision.”

Despite enrollment declines across the two-year college sector, an estimated 20.5 million working-age adults in the U.S. say they intend to enroll in community or technical college in the next two years, according to polling conducted last fall by Gallup on behalf of the Strada Education Network. And more than half of this group is Black (20 percent) or Latino (33 percent).

A new report seeks to bridge the gap between demand and enrollment, with suggestions for using proven interventions to help adult learners overcome barriers to enrolling in community college. The report from Strada’s Institute for the Future of Work, InsideTrack, and CollegeAPP features a framework for services, supports, and resources needed to increase higher education access and success. It includes several state-specific data reports, including one for Texas, where an estimated 1.4 million adults express interest in enrolling in community college — 250,000 just in Harris County, home to Houston.

Recent data from the CollegeAPP, which produces modeling on prospective adult students, found that many Americans want education and skills to get back to work, move up the career ladder, or to prepare for automation and other technological changes.

Could two-year colleges turn the enrollment slide into a boom in the next year or two?

“Yes, it is clear from the demand data that millions of adults in this country view community colleges as a pathway to greater opportunity,” says Janet Salm, managing director of Strada’s Institute for the Future of Work and a co-author of the report. “As states reopen, the community colleges that focus on holistic support of working-aged learners by making it less burdensome to combine learning, work, and other life commitments stand to benefit greatly from the pent-up demand in their communities.”

Open Tabs

Community Colleges

Virginia is moving forward with tuition-free community college for an estimated 36,000 students who pursue credentials in high-demand fields. The “Get Skilled, Get a Job, Give Back” or G3 program signed into law this week by Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, includes $36 million to cover tuition, fees, books, and wraparound support for low- and middle-income students enrolled in health care, IT and computer science, manufacturing and skilled trades, public safety, and early childhood education programs. Participating Virginia community colleges will receive performance payments when grant recipients complete 30 credit hours and when they earn associate degrees.

More than a quarter (28 percent) of community college students said their household’s financial situation worsened during the pandemic, with women who are parents in particular reporting that they were struggling, according to a survey conducted last fall by the Center for Community College Student Engagement.

A developmental education reform program from the City University of New York, dubbed CUNY Start, substantially increased college readiness, according to new research from MDRC, while slightly increasing credit accumulation, and modestly increasing graduation rates.

Skills-Based Hiring

LinkedIn has committed to helping 250,000 companies make a skills-based hire this year. The company’s CEO, Ryan Roslansky, pointed to Skills Path, a new offering which pairs LinkedIn Learning courses with Skill Assessments to help recruiters evaluate candidates in a more equitable way.

This week Brad Smith, Microsoft’s president, wrote about the broader global skills initiative from the company, which owns LinkedIn. Microsoft has introduced a new Teams for Education app called Career Coach. “This will provide personalized guidance for higher-education students to discover their career path, grow real-world skills, and build their network all in one place,” Smith wrote. “It also helps higher-education institutions gain insights into student skills, career goals and job market trends.”

Aptitude assessments can help close gender gaps and increase the talent pool in high-demand fields such as healthcare, computer technology, manufacturing, and construction, according to a new academic paper by researchers at the University of Missouri.

Research and Reading

Non-white college students are more than twice as likely to want a virtual internship compared to white students, according to Inside Higher Ed’s Student Voice. They also are more than twice as likely to say they are extremely interested in taking a fully remote job upon graduation. These and other similar findings “point toward the notion that a major factor here is the climate of micro-aggressions and overt racism that persists (arguably disproportionately) in the physical world of both American higher education and the workplace,” Brandon Busteed, president of university partners and global head of learn-work innovation at Kaplan, wrote in Forbes.

[A] publicly owned gig-work platform could keep a much smaller share of each transaction — perhaps as little as two per cent — leaving more money available to provide decent wages and benefits,” according to Wingham Rowan, a labor reformer and entrepreneur who was featured in The New Yorker last week.

Let me know what I missed? Catch you next week — PF @paulfain

A veteran higher education journalist and analyst, Paul focuses on the connections between education and the American workforce.