Photo by Mario Gogh on Unsplash

A look at expanding projects to set standards for graduates’ employability, including JFF’s acquisition of EQOS, and the new Workforce Talent Educators Association. Also, Intel’s big education and training push in Ohio, and a state policy playbook from America Achieves.

Students and the Labor Market

We’re learning more about how college students fare in the labor market these days. That’s because researchers are tapping a growing trove of state and federal data to create new analyses on college ROI.

Plenty of questions remain, however, about how to use imperfect data from the federal College Scorecard and other sources to develop consumer-friendly tools that can help students make better decisions. Likewise, how should policy makers use employment information to prod colleges and other postsecondary providers to do more to help their graduates get good, well-paying jobs?

In the meantime, some institutions are being proactive by signing on to quality-assurance projects on student success after graduation. The general concepts aren’t new, and most previous iterations have fizzled. But better data and more urgency on equity gaps—as well as the struggle by businesses to fill open jobs—are fueling an energized push. For example:

  • JFF today announced the acquisition of the Educational Quality Outcomes Standards Board (EQOS), which was conceived as part of a largely failed federal experiment during the Obama administration. EQOS, however, has evolved into an Energy Star–style seal of approval based on a framework of universal definitions of student outcomes for education and training programs.
  • The Quality Assurance Commons, which was created in 2016 by Ralph Wolff, a veteran college accreditor, offers an employability scan with a focus on the embedding of essential employability skills into courses and curricula. So far the group has certified 17 programs, mostly from community colleges and four-year universities in Kentucky.
  • A newcomer to the space, the Workforce Talent Educators Association, strives to be an alternative form of accreditation. The group focuses on assessments of workforce outcomes and skill development. Its founding members are the 10-campus Texas State Technical College and the start-up Reach University.

“There have been a number of valiant efforts in this space,” says JFF president and CEO Maria Flynn. “But unfortunately, we haven’t seen any of them stick.”

JFF hopes to use its reach with colleges and nontraditional providers, employers, and workforce systems to put the EQOS standards into action around the country. Flynn says the accessibility of the standards makes them useful for both consumers and corporations as they try to determine which career-focused education and training programs are high-quality and lead to good jobs.

“All of us are having trouble as we navigate the 1M credentials out there,” Flynn says.

EQOS is not a membership organization for colleges. And much of the group’s success has been with state agencies. Its pilot projects in Colorado, New Jersey, and Indiana, for example, have focused on accelerated training programs, such as apprenticeships.

JFF should be able to create more demand and visibility for the quality-assurance standards from EQOS, says Michael Horn, an author and higher education expert who is the EQOS board chairman.

“It will also give states more confidence that this organization isn’t going away,” he says.

State policy makers want more information about employment outcomes for education and training programs. The standards can help them rethink their approach to investing in training, says Flynn, who argues that EQOS should have bipartisan appeal.

As an example, Flynn points to the success of Virginia’s targeted subsidies for short-term credentials in high-demand fields from its community colleges. Because those programs are grounded in labor market data, with employers at the table, they tend to lead to jobs with livable wages. 

But Virginia is far ahead of the curve with its focus on employment outcomes, says Flynn. “The starting point unfortunately is quite low right now,” she says. “Across the board, we have so much work to do.”

The EQOS standards have mostly been used in career education. But Flynn says they could also work for traditional college degrees. Likewise, Horn says the new ROI analyses and resulting conversations on employment make it harder for colleges to duck tough questions. 

The Kicker: “Now the opacity is working against them,” says Horn.

WORK SHIFT: Intel bets big on American-made computer chips—and on workforce training
WORK SHIFT: Intel bets big on American-made computer chips—and on workforce training

As Intel plans to spend $20 billion to make semiconductors in Ohio, it’s also investing big—$100 million—in education and training for workers.

Career Impact Audits

Jennifer Dirmeyer was a tenured professor of economics at Michigan’s Ferris State University when groundbreaking data from what is now Harvard University’s Opportunity Insights proved that much of higher education has failed to improve students’ economic mobility. She says:

“The work of Raj Chetty and others at Opportunity Insights shows that some programs in higher ed are forces of economic mobility, while others are not. The next logical step is to ask how we can help to support those schools that are creating opportunity for students who wouldn’t have access otherwise. The WTEA is my answer to this question.”

The upstart accrediting group offers career impact audits that are designed to assess a college program’s ability to prepare learners for workforce success. It measures quality across three areas:

  • Workforce outcomes, such as job placement rates, starting salaries, and employer satisfaction.
  • Quality management, by asking programs to demonstrate the quality of their curriculum, instruction, and student success and career services with their own effective assessments.
  • Curriculum and employer links, with a tool called Calibrate, which allows programs to identify skills being taught in a curriculum and then validate this list of skills against employer needs for specific positions.

Dirmeyer says WTEA is betting that a rigorous quality-assurance process grounded in the workforce success of learners will be valuable to educators, employers, and students, which will give its accredited members an advantage in the marketplace.

For businesses, the group wants to make it easier to identify postsecondary programs that will be good partners, she says, and to help open “new pathways to meaningful employment by identifying talent pools that employers may be currently overlooking” because of degree requirements or a lack of familiarity.

“Our accreditation will be a signal for employers and learners that a program is delivering on its promises as a career-building educator,” Dirmeyer says.

TSTC’s Take on Employability

Few colleges have been more serious about labor market results than Texas State Technical College. The two-year system made headlines a decade ago by voluntarily tying much of its budget to the job-placement rates and salaries of graduates.

At the time, Michael Reeser, TSTC’s chancellor and CEO, was careful to suggest that his workforce-focused institution’s embrace of performance funding would be difficult to duplicate at most other colleges. But he also predicted that would change.

“Some sort of outcomes-based methodologies are inevitable for likely all of public higher ed. We thought we’d be the first,” he said in 2012.

Indeed, the pressure for colleges to focus more on the employability of students has gotten much stronger over the last decade. Employers are begging for talent, says Reeser. And students increasingly are wary of paying to attend college if they believe they won’t be able to get a good job after graduation.

“Higher education is at risk right now if it doesn’t pay attention,” he says.

These days, Texas State Technical College features a money-back guarantee of employment within six months for most of its in-demand degrees. “Our job is to get you a job,” the college says on its site.

TSTC has developed its own tool for creating structured language about skills for education and training providers. The system’s competency library, dubbed SkillsEngine, is now offered through its Center for Employability Outcomes. WTEA’s Calibrate is a core application of SkillsEngine. (I’ll revisit the tool in a subsequent issue.)

Reeser says Dirmeyer’s plan for creating a new accrediting body will be a lengthy, uphill battle. WTEA’s intention, he says, is to add employability to the major quality-assurance planks of conventional accreditation—teaching, assessment standards, scholarship, student support, institutional governance and health. If WTEA succeeds, Reeser says it will create a new pathway for accreditation that is better aligned with the core purpose of college for the vast majority of today’s students.

The Kicker: “Eventually, through one means or another, this mismatch between service provider and customer—between the college and the student—will resolve itself,” he says. “I see the WTEA approach as the best chance for many in higher ed to find the win-win future that’s still possible.”

For more from Reeser, click over to Work Shift to read a Q&A.

Playbook for State Policy

America Achieves is an incubator for projects aimed at low-income learners. It spun off several nonprofits in recent years, including Merit America and CollegePoint. As the pandemic began, the nonprofit group began a back-to-work effort focused on economic mobility.

Through its bipartisan State Recovery Now project, the group recently published a policy playbook for supporting people on the pathway to good careers while helping employers fill in-demand jobs. It recommends that state and local governments consider spending some of their federal stimulus funds on evidence-based job training and career coaching. The playbook’s approach includes:

  • The establishment of a mechanism to spend roughly $8K to $20K per eligible applicant, which would cover tuition for training that’s connected to good jobs as well as career coaching and wraparound supports such as guidance counseling, transportation, and childcare.
  • The creation of a formal evaluation system for rating the quality of programs. The criteria should be focused on equity and draw from evidence of what is most effective in helping underserved populations land jobs that pay family-sustaining wages.

Employers that are hiring for good jobs and wages need to be at the center of this work, says Jon Schnur, CEO of America Achieves:

“That means starting with employers in in-demand, growing sectors of the economy, including technology, health care, clean energy, and infrastructure. It means asking those employers and their associations to confirm what good jobs and careers they are prioritizing and to agree on what skills and credentials are needed for hiring.”

Work Shift published a Q&A with Schnur. Click here to read it.

Open Tabs

Pipeline Woes

High school graduation rates fell last year in 20 of 26 states that have released that data, according to an analysis by Chalkbeat and the Associated Press. Those declines reverse decades of increases, and experts are worried that graduation-rate dips will be even larger in coming years. Drivers of the decline last year included students working longer hours and being disengaged during online instruction.

Employment Outcomes

The ROI from attending college is less for lower-income students across all sectors and credential types in higher education, largely because those students tend to earn less as adults, according to a new report from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. Low-income students also are more likely to attend colleges and enroll in programs that do not produce the highest ROI.

Most older community college students in Virginia who left without earning a credential had failed to make much academic progress, according to a new analysis from the Brookings Institutions. But those who did make progress despite not earning a credential typically had steadily increasing wages. And most students in this category were enrolled in a field of study that lacked a significant earnings bump tied to completion.

Great Renegotiation

The majority (78 percent) of U.S. adults who either quit their job recently or were planning to quit have taken online training courses or certificate programs within the past six months, according to the results of a Cengage Group survey of 1,200 Americans age 25 and older. Almost all of those who had pursued online training said it would help them get a new job, and 71 percent paid for all or part of the course themselves.

Statewide Systems

For career-connected learning pathways to work at scale, educators must elevate career outcomes, while employers must proactively invest in workforce development, Bain & Company argues in a new report. The management consulting firm says Delaware, Washington, Rhode Island, and Indiana are working to create quality statewide systems, which feature student-centered and market-driven career-connected learning.

Tech Credentials

“The federal government should create a national digital corps, bringing the brightest minds in technology to universities, community colleges, and local businesses to spend three to six months building effective credentialing and apprenticeship programs and mentoring newly trained workers,” U.S. Representative Ro Khanna, a California Democrat, writes in an essay for The Wall Street Journal.

Degree Requirements

The labor market was modestly tighter for workers without bachelor’s degrees in June 2021 than it was before the pandemic, according to a report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. The reverse was true for workers with degrees. The report also found that educational requirements employers listed in job ads were slightly lower, even after controlling for occupation and job sector.

Tuition Benefits

Hilton and Kohl’s are the latest big companies to partner with Guild Education to offer college tuition as a benefit to employees. Hilton, which has roughly 2,900 U.S. hotel job openings, will provide debt-free credential programs ranging from high school diplomas to college degrees. Kohl’s will cover all tuition and fees for college credentials for its eligible employees, including part-time workers.

Busy week for reports, with more to come in the next issue. What else did I miss? Thanks for reading. —@paulfain

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