Photo by Alfons Morales on Unsplash

Welcome back. This week’s issue looks at data on millions of college grads who lack literacy skills, comprehensive learner records, and an employability scan from QA Commons. (To get this newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.)

Literacy, Numeracy, and Employability

Businesses both big and small say they want employees with soft skills. And a growing body of research shows that employers prioritize teamwork, critical thinking, the ability to interpret data, problem solving, and communication skills for many jobs.

Yet a troubling number of Americans lack the literacy and numeracy proficiencies that are needed to undergird these essential skills. As federal and state governments mull big spending on skills training, some experts say more resources should go toward boosting the literacy and numeracy of Americans without college degrees.

And despite the widespread belief that a quality liberal education in a college degree program is the best way to develop the sort of highly sought skills that pay off in the job market, many college degree holders also lack proficiency in literacy and numeracy.

Irwin Kirsch directs the Center for Global Assessment at Educational Testing Service (ETS). A global guru of literacy measurement, Kirsch manages several large-scale foundational skills assessments.

He says it is difficult if not impossible to problem solve or critically evaluate, interpret, or make meaningful inferences in any area of knowledge without the ability to decipher texts and to understand and apply numeric information.

One in five employed American adults with a bachelor’s degree lacks important skills in literacy, with one in three falling below proficient levels in numeracy, Kirsch notes, citing data from the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) survey, which measures key cognitive and workforce skills.

These college graduates lack literacy skills they will need for success in the job market, Kirsch wrote in a recent essay

For this group, policymakers and others must focus on providing them with opportunities to improve their literacy, numeracy and digital skills in support of future learning, including job-specific training and retraining programs. Investing in these individuals is important not only for their future success, it is critical for the social and economic well-being of our country.

Likewise, the national narrative around degrees and skills needs some tweaking, Kirsch says, pointing to roughly 30 million working-age adults who do not hold a bachelor’s degree but who demonstrate PIAAC literacy above a critical threshold. He says these Americans—who overlap with millions of alternatively skilled adults identified by Opportunity@Work—could benefit from a certificate or badge that certifies their skills.

The Kicker:

“For too long, we have relied on increasing the quantity of education, assuming this would provide better pathways for sustainable and economically stable livelihoods,” Kirsch says. “Although on average this is true, the PIAAC data indicate there are tens of millions of working-age adults whose existing skills and experience supersede the signal strength of their degrees.”

Setback for Short-Term Pell

The U.S. Senate this week passed a $250 billion bill aimed at competition with China. The overwhelming vote to boost funding for technology research and the semiconductor industry did not, however, include a bipartisan amendment to expand eligibility for federal Pell Grants to workforce education and training programs of eight to 15 weeks in length.

The so-called Workforce Pell amendment was backed by community college and business groups, among others. It was the closest advocates have gotten to moving short-term Pell legislation, which New America and some consumer groups have opposed, sometimes sharply.

Politico’s Michael Stratford reported that Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, successfully blocked the amendment and several others. It’s unclear if short-term Pell will reemerge in other legislative packages before the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

Undergraduate Enrollment Declines

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center this week reported that 476,000 fewer students enrolled at U.S. community colleges this spring, a decline of 9.5 percent. The nation’s overall postsecondary decline was 603,000 students, or 3.5 percent, with undergraduates accounting for all of the decrease.

Declines were largest among 18- to 24-year-olds, with a 13.2 percent—or 365,000—dip in this traditional college-age group at community colleges. Enrollments of men were down more sharply across all sectors, with a 14.4 decline at community colleges compared to a 6 percent dip for women.

Comprehensive Learner Records

Few argue that the traditional college transcript does a good job of telling employers what a graduate knows and can do. As a result, several ongoing projects are seeking to create Comprehensive Learner Records (CLRs) that expand on the information a college certifies about learners’ educational experience, both inside and out of the classroom.

Experts say a broadly adopted CLR could help standardize information sharing about the competencies graduates possess, and it could be a competitive advantage for the entities that develop the format for those records.

This week Parchment, an academic credentials management company, announced a partnership with the University of Maryland Global Campus to develop and issue CLRs, beginning with its MBA program, in part because it is “structured to easily allow the extraction of competency-based data.”

Parchment and UMGC also released a sample CLR.

What do you think? Will Comprehensive Learner Records become a thing? Take this short poll.

An Employability Scan

Ralph Wolff is a former accreditor who has pushed for more transparency in higher education, including for regional accreditors to publicly post reports and decision letters.

In recent years Wolff has led QA Commons, which offers certifications to ensure that postsecondary programs prepare students for employability. The group analyzes what is being taught in relation to soft skills at the program level. And it pushes back on arguments about “vocationalizing the curriculum,” arguing that soft skills are essential and too often lacking among recent hires in the workforce.

Nearly all faculty members say they teach these skills, Wolff says. But that instruction largely is conducted in an academic or technical context, rather than through work-based learning, internships, work-based exercises and simulations, or through student engagement with employers.

“First-generation and underrepresented students have limited notions of careers and little awareness of the skills they bring to their programs,” says Wolff, who founded QA Commons and will step down from leading the group this month. “Thus, the connection to career services and the role of faculty in helping students understand their career options are more important now than ever before.”

QA Commons has analyzed roughly 75 programs at 28 institutions, including those offered by public colleges and universities in Kentucky and Connecticut. Kentucky’s Murray State University is the first to have at least one program from all of its colleges participate in the group’s employability certification process.

“We are trying to explicitly bridge the perceived gap between the world of work and baccalaureate degree holders regarding overall employability skills,” says Tim Todd, the university’s provost and vice president for academic affairs. “We want to show that Murray State’s academic programs place a distinctive focus on employability.”

Faculty and the EScan

Jillian Kinzie is associate director of the Center for Postsecondary Research and the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) Institute at Indiana University’s School of Education. She worked with QA Commons to develop a new employability scan for faculty members and administrators, to see how academic programs stack up on employability outcomes.

“The EScan offers a good first step to align curriculum and practices with employability goals,” says Kinzie. “It can help guide departments in their efforts to partner with workforce needs, and to do what’s best for their academic programs and graduates.”

After using the EScan, some programs in Kentucky discussed increasing opportunities for early internships, or short field-based experiences in key courses. One program discovered comprehensive internship evaluations that faculty could study to better prepare students for internships and employment. Another is planning to invest in alumni data about careers and in connecting more alums to their program through speaking invitations and internship opportunities.

Kinzie says the process has revealed calls for more structured connections between academic programs and career service professionals:

Some programs reflected that they have very limited information from career services about how their students utilized career services or placement, how well prepared they were, or how well they performed in campus-based interviews. Career service units have untapped information about graduates that programs would benefit from knowing, but there is no systematic way for programs to get this information.

Open Tabs

Community Colleges

Kaiser Permanente will spend $1 million to create an equity scholarship fund for Colorado community college students who are enrolled in health sciences degree programs. Scholarships will be prioritized for students from underrepresented groups who have demonstrated financial need, said the large health-care provider and the foundation for the state’s community college system.

“We could double our enrollment and we still wouldn’t meet the needs of the community,” Nathan Barry, dean of career and technical education at Metropolitan Community College in Omaha, told The Hechinger Report, which reported on how employers are straining to find skilled trade workers as the federal government mulls huge new infrastructure spending.

North Carolina’s community colleges have halted a statewide push to reform remedial education that would have allowed students to take credit-bearing, college-level courses at the same time as developmental ones, reported EdNC. Leaders across the system voted to pause the rollout of so-called corequisite education due to the pandemic and questions about the effectiveness of the model, which research has shown can be successful.

Getting Hired

Half of Americans (49 percent) who became unemployed during the pandemic said they are not actively or not very actively looking for work, according to the results of a May poll from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The poll also found that 23 percent of respondents feel they do not have the skills or experience necessary for most available jobs.

College students who participate in at least four high-impact practices such as study abroad, internships, undergraduate research, or community service have a 70 percent chance of either enrolling in graduate school or finding a full-time job after graduating with a bachelor’s degree, according to a new study from researchers at the University at Buffalo, who found that such practices have the greatest influence on student success.  

Symplicity reported positive job trends from its student career services platform, with companies hiring and seeking “early talent” for roles in IT, finance, health care, engineering, and other industries. The student employability company works with 1,000 university partners and based its analysis on aggregated U.S. data from April.

Alternative Pathways

A new book of 19 case studies from Social Finance and the Federal Reserve Banks of Atlanta and Philadelphia explores alternative, low-cost pathways to good jobs. For example, the book looks at realigned incentives through outcomes-based funding with articles by Glenn DuBois, the chancellor of the Virginia Community College System, and Michael Reeser, chancellor and CEO of the Texas State Technical College system.

Policy makers should look to DARPA as a model for public sector innovation to create a research and development arm within the U.S. Department of Labor that would focus on underemployed and unemployed American workers, Maria Flynn, president and CEO of JFF, and Arati Prabhakar, CEO of Actuate and former director of DARPA, wrote in an essay for Fortune, citing new types of apprenticeships as an example of creative experimentation.

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.