Courtesy of Wake Forest University

Welcome back. This week’s issue includes a look at whether colleges are prioritizing career development, essays on imperiled workforce funding, a Gallup survey on employer upskilling benefits, and two new books predicting a transformation for higher education. (Sign up here to get this newsletter.)

A Question of Priorities

“Too often career services are treated like an afterthought on college campuses.”

That quote is from Michael Carter, CEO and founder of Strive for College. Carter made me wonder whether more colleges are elevating career services.

Plenty of news releases cross the transom these days about projects to offer college students more career exploration and education, work experience, and professional connections. But are four-year colleges putting real money and effort behind this work?

Some are making significant investments, including Arizona State University, Western Governors University, Wellesley College, and Johns Hopkins University, says Andy Chan, Wake Forest University’s vice president for innovation and career development. But those are the exceptions.

“For the majority, not that much really happened. There hasn’t been that much dramatic change across the industry,” Chan says of the last decade or so, adding that many institutions “are still in a place where they are either similarly resourced or less resourced than before, because of the pressures on universities.”

Chan and Wake Forest were championing career development in higher education long before it became a hot topic. I recently interviewed Chan as part of a new report for Inside Higher Ed on career connections and four-year colleges and universities. Click over to Work Shift to read the full Q&A.

Also included in the report, which drew heavily from contributions from reporters for Work Shift, is an essay from Joe Testani, associate vice provost for career education initiatives at the University of Rochester. Career education needs to be a priority of the highest order for colleges, argues Testani, who previously worked in career services at Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Richmond:

“All four-year institutions should have a three-year, university-level strategic plan on the integration of career education into the curricular and co-curricular experience of students and alumni. Workforce needs and the future of work require nimble and rapid adjustments to strategies and approaches.”

Wake Forest, Hopkins, Richmond, and Drew University have enacted this level of serious plan, says Testani. Likewise, Indiana University at Bloomington, SUNY Binghamton, ASU, and the University of Notre Dame are among four-year institutions that have dedicated significant resources to career education. Let me know others I missed?

From Work Shift

The Auto Workers of the Future
The Auto Workers of the Future

Ford this week announced an $11 billion investment in new U.S. production facilities for electric vehicles and batteries. The move will create 11,000 jobs in Kentucky and Tennessee—and require new training at a major scale.

Training Money on the Blocks

The White House and top Democratic lawmakers are scrambling to pare back roughly $4 trillion in economic initiatives, The Washington Post and other outlets reported, in an effort to save the Build Back Better package from a major delay.

Moderates continue to balk at the size and scope of the package, which would remake everything from health care to early education to climate laws—while the Congressional Progressive Caucus threatens to scuttle a $1 trillion infrastructure deal if it’s not part of the larger package.

The Upshot: Congress is considering substantial trims to the funds for worker retraining in the bill as it tries to get the overall size down. The House Education and Labor Committee proposed $80 billion for that funding—already down from the $100 billion called for by the Biden administration—and Politico Pro reported that amount could be slashed to $14 billion.

The National Skills Coalition says $100 billion is the “amount we need to respond to the pandemic’s impact on the workforce and the decade worth of digital and technological change that happened in just the last year.”

Maria Flynn, president and CEO of JFF, also sounded the alarm in an op-ed for Work Shift. She argues that millions of people aren’t prepared to move into new jobs envisioned by Congress—and that federal funds are needed to help retrain them.

The Kicker: “If we are not careful, this could unintentionally create millions of new jobs without preparing workers to fill them.” Read the full op-ed.

Funding and Outcomes

Even as Congress debates “how much” when it comes to retraining funds, there’s an equally important question of “for what.” Flynn acknowledges that the country is overdue for a deeper debate about what the workforce system should look like.

Angela Jackson, managing partner at the venture philanthropy New Profit, takes this on in a new essay for Work Shift. Less than 1 percent of government funding is tied to results-oriented workforce training programs, Jackson writes—despite the fact that there is growing evidence of programs that work.

She highlights the Expanding Pathways to Employment Act, a bipartisan bill that would create a $700 million fund for workforce development and postsecondary education programs that have been evaluated and demonstrated positive impacts on earnings. It also would build a framework for shifting more workforce funding to proven programs over time.

The Kicker: “The country can’t afford to keep investing in programs that, however well-meaning, don’t work.” Read the full op-ed on Work Shift.

‘The Great Upheaval’

Two higher education veterans with unusually broad backgrounds have new books out that predict a profound transformation for the industry:

Levine previously was president of Columbia University’s Teachers College and held several positions at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, among other roles. He and Van Pelt say colleges and universities are in the early phases of an upheaval that will rival that of the Industrial Revolution, although the pace of change will be faster.

Every college will need to adapt, he predicts, as the lines between colleges, industry, and cultural agencies blur.

“Traditional higher education is undoubtedly facing mounting competition from a mushrooming number of new content providers, and students have dramatically more choices—often at lower cost—in how, when, and where they learn,” Levine and Van Pelt write. They say students will receive instruction and certification online from organizations as varied as Google, Procter and Gamble, alibaba, Calvin Klein, L’Oréal, PBS, and the Museum of Natural History.

The dominance of degrees will diminish, they write, while nondegree certifications and “just-in-time” education will increase in status and value. These shifts would be chaotic, creating challenges as well as opportunities.

Community colleges and regional public universities will be disrupted by competition from alternative providers, they write. And the predicted upheaval could cause greater educational inequity and social division by “establishing two separate and unequal models of higher education.”

Rick Seltzer of Higher Ed Dive asked Levine whether he worries about students not encountering new ideas when they are better able to personalize their education.

“What you’re describing scares the hell out of me,” Levine said. “Yes, it’s an enormous possibility that will happen. We can already see it in news.”

Levine told me viable stackable credential pathways, which currently are rare, could help diminish the tracking problem by giving lower-income students a better chance to earn degrees. But he added a caveat, saying that even with real stackability, the “prestige of the authorizer of the stack will matter, particularly if the stack can be converted to a degree.”

Colleges are remarkably durable institutions. And plenty of dire predictions about the industry’s future have fizzled as higher education iterates and absorbs upstarts.

Yet many experts think a substantial shift is underway. 

Dan Greenstein, chancellor of Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education, which is merging six of 14 universities, this week wrote about the conclusions from Levine, Van Pelt, and others. He cited the growing emphasis on job readiness by traditional colleges and universities, an expansion of experiential learning and nondegree credentials, and the potential for LinkedIn’s Learning Hub and other mass-market platforms to encroach significantly on the near monopoly degree-granting institutions have had over postsecondary education.

“The transformation of our nation’s universities will proceed incrementally, then all at once,” Greenstein wrote.

‘The Educational Underground’: Smith’s book features the stories of a wide range of working learners to make the case for a broader acceptance of the knowledge and skills people gain outside traditional college. Smith, a former U.S. representative, was the founding president of the Community College of Vermont and California State University at Monterey Bay.

Postsecondary options for working learners will increase dramatically while becoming more affordable, Smith tells me. This could open up possibilities for many of the millions of Americans who cannot access the “opportunity ladder” of higher education as it is currently structured. And it will put more pressure on traditional colleges.

“Adjusting at scale to the newly recognized needs of employers and adult learners will prove more difficult, academically and economically, for traditional institutions than many people realize,” he says.

Smith suggests several ways for policy makers and higher education leaders to help working learners have their knowledge and skills recognized:

  • Instead of doubling the value of federal Pell Grants, put that money into lifelong learning accounts that are income-referenced.
  • Stop using time (four years for a bachelor’s degree) as a determinant of learning progress and divorce “academic progress” as traditionally defined from financial aid.
  • Develop and fund competence equivalents that allow for scaled assessment of prior learning for both academic recognition and employment qualification.
  • Focus on personal dispositions, as well as knowledge and skills, as critical components to success in life and at work.

The Kicker: When asked about arguments of skeptics of online college benefits for front-line workers, including those who say these credential programs aren’t really college, Smith says:

“They are defending a ‘castle’ that an increasing number of people—employers, learners, and educators—don’t want to storm. Just as digitization has flipped the music and movie industries, so will it redefine how education happens, where, and for whom.”

Employer Upskilling

New data has emerged in recent weeks on results for the growing number of tuition benefit programs from large employers, including Amazon, which this month announced free college as a benefit for its 750,000 front-line U.S. employees.

This week Gallup released results from an Amazon-commissioned survey in June of 15,066 U.S. workers on upskilling programs, which the report defined as training or education that teaches new skills or advances or upgrades existing skills.

Among respondents, 36 percent participated in an employer-provided upskilling program during the previous year, compared to 21 percent who participated in a program they sought out on their own. 

Hispanic workers were most likely to be interested in upskilling (69 percent), followed by Black workers (63 percent), Asian American workers (56 percent), and white workers (53 percent).

“Upskilling opportunities provided by their employer and held during work hours are most preferred,” according to the report, “as they help workers overcome the two main barriers to upskilling that this survey revealed: workers’ lack of time and money.”

The survey found that upskilling led to an average annual pay bump of 8.6 percent (roughly $8,000) for participants, as well as promotion opportunities, higher job satisfaction, and a better standard of living.

Tuition benefits may help attract employees, the survey’s findings suggest. About two-thirds of workers said employer-provided upskilling is very important to evaluating a job. And for young respondents, it’s the third most important benefit, after health insurance and disability.

Yet these programs tend to skew toward higher-income employees, the survey found. Upskilling is disproportionately offered to the highest-skilled workers. And those who want it most are the least likely to have participated in upskilling or to say their employer provides it.

Open Tabs

Community Colleges

Blue Ridge Community College boosted its student enrollment by 9 percent this fall, in part with a large increase among working adult students, Laura Leatherwood, the college’s president, wrote in EdNC. The North Carolina college ran marketing campaigns while working with InsideTrack to engage students who had left at least five years ago but were at least halfway to earning a credential.

College Degrees

Nondegree education pathways are unlikely to reduce equity gaps for underserved student groups, Aimée Eubanks Davis, CEO and founder of Braven, said in an interview with Harvard Business Review. Until those with the privilege of race and class opt out of college degrees, she says, “it’s not really going to do much for Black and brown students from low-income backgrounds. That is the brutal reality of race, of class, of privilege.”

Online Learning

The 20 largest U.S. institutions by online enrollments include Dallas College and University of the People, according to an analysis by Phil Hill of federal data from fall 2020. Hill also tracked trends in online education enrollments since 2012.

LSU Online has joined Guild Education’s Learning Marketplace, which offers degree and certificate programs to Chipotle, Target, Walmart, and other employer partners. The research university will join about eight other institutions in Guild’s network.

Learn and Earn

The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston has struggled to find postsecondary institutions that will partner on learn-and-earn opportunities for students in some allied health programs, Angie Bush, administrative director of imaging services for UTMB, said during a webcast last week from Whiteboard Advisors on stackable credentials.

New Hire

The Competency-based Education Network has hired Amber Garrison Duncan as its first executive vice president. A strategy director at the Lumina Foundation, Garrison Duncan will help C-BEN in its work to grow competency-based learning models.

What did I miss this week? Let me know. —@paulfain

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