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A ‘rigged’ economy and skepticism about college

Photo by Yeshi Kangrang on Unsplash

A survey digs into public skepticism about the value of higher education and its relation to a “rigged” labor market. Also, ideas for restoring confidence and preserving state support, an essay on the labor market’s role in the debate over short-term Pell, and possible federal action on ISAs.

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Finding Common Ground

The college degree remains the surest ticket to a living wage and a rewarding career. But deep public skepticism—from both sides of the political spectrum—about the value of higher education and its relation to a labor market that most people think is rigged will impact policy debates in coming years.

“In an economy that most see as fundamentally unfair, Americans view college as expensive and time-consuming, and they see colleges as stuck in the past,” write researchers for Public Agenda in a new report.

Almost three-quarters of U.S. adults (74%) say there are many ways to succeed in today’s work world without a college education, according to the results of a nationally representative survey the nonprofit group, USA Today, and Ipsos Hidden Ground conducted in May and released earlier this month. (The findings were similar to those from a teaser of the forthcoming results of New America’s sixth annual survey on higher education, which are slated for release next week.)

Likewise, while most respondents (86%) across political affiliations agree that a college education can help working adults advance their careers, fully half say college is a questionable investment because of high student loans and limited job opportunities.

The survey found strong beliefs about doors being closed in higher education and the labor market, with respondents saying:

  • Many people who are qualified to attend college lack the opportunity (67%).
  • College is too time-consuming and expensive for working adults (63%).
  • The American economy is rigged to advantage the rich and powerful (72%).

A broad majority of respondents also believe employers should get more involved in helping people prepare for careers, saying:

  • Corporations would do better than colleges at educating people to succeed in their industries (67%).
  • States should provide tax incentives for employers that offer college tuition benefits (79%).

Respondents are overwhelmingly supportive of public funding for workforce-focused education. They back more money for internship and training programs for college students (88%), workforce training and certification programs (87%), and the creation of flexible, short-term credential programs that can lead to a degree (85%).

The survey also found wide support for alternative financing and free community college.

But, in perhaps the most worrisome finding for public higher education, less than half of respondents agreed with the statement that public two-year and four-year colleges are a worthwhile investment of public funds because they increase opportunity for low-income students and people of color. Only 21% felt their public flagship university met that bar.

A Path Forward?

A new brief from HCM Strategists riffs on the survey’s findings.

The public policy and advocacy consulting firm recommends how to fortify public confidence in higher education, reverse enrollment declines, and protect state investment in talent development. (I reviewed a draft of the report and made suggestions about current events.) 

States should direct greater proportions of higher education dollars to community colleges and open-access public universities, HCM says, because those institutions are best positioned to spur upward mobility.

Meanwhile, employers need to invest directly in higher education to “develop the diverse talent they directly benefit from hiring.” And colleges should adapt structured credential pathways by linking them to the concrete needs of adult learners and the businesses that employ them.

“The so-called traditional college experience—particularly for the first-generation, Black, Hispanic or Latino student who attends a liberal arts college or a comprehensive research institution full time—is an important part of the mix,” the brief said. “Yet so must be the flexible, accessible pathway for the working adult who completes a short-term certificate program in a high-demand field—thanks in part to support from an employer and a state scholarship or no-interest loan.”

Short-Term Pell

We can’t ignore the economy’s role in the debate over whether to open up federal Pell Grants to programs that take less than 15 weeks for students to complete, says Michelle Van Noy, an associate research professor and director of the Education and Employment Research Center at Rutgers University.

“Labeling short-term programs that lead to low-wage jobs as ‘low-quality’ obscures the true problem: the labor market failure that leads to the prevalence of undervalued, low-wage jobs in today’s economy,” Van Noy writes in an essay for Work Shift.

The bulk of government support for education and job training goes to programs that lead to higher-wage jobs, she notes, and workers with a college education get more training.

More public investment should be directed to education and training programs for lower-wage workers, says Van Noy, particularly those that feature broader skills development to ensure that students have the ability to pursue pathways for further education. As an example, she points to Washington State’s I-BEST model.

The Kicker: “In this way, short-term programs can help people who work in low-wage fields have the skills not only to be able to safely and effectively do their jobs but also to advance in their education,” Van Noy writes.

Click on over to Work Shift to read the full op-ed.

‘Regulatory Framework’ for ISAs

A bipartisan bill introduced this week in the U.S. Senate seeks to bolster income-share agreements by applying consumer protections to the form of alternative student lending.

ISAs face stiff political, PR, and regulatory headwinds. And the most high-profile institutionally-branded model, from Purdue University, recently fizzled. But the industry continues to see growth, including with direct-to-consumer versions of ISAs. And states have begun experimenting with no-interest loans tied to borrowers’ future earnings, an approach that fits into the broader category of outcomes-based lending.

The new bill, which builds on previously introduced versions, would attach several guardrails to ISAs, such as limiting borrower payments to 20% of their income. It also would require detailed disclosures, apply laws like the Fair Credit Reporting Act, and give the Consumer Federal Protection Bureau regulatory authority over ISAs.

Ethan Pollack, director of JFF’s Financing the Future Initiative, says the proposal would give helpful clarity to the market for outcomes-based loans while also drawing from consumer groups’ critiques and concerns.

The bill takes a “giant leap forward” from previous versions, Pollack writes in a post, “incorporating the views of a diverse group of stakeholders to create a universal regulatory framework and improve integration with existing federal loan protections.”

In Colorado, a snapshot of how the pandemic disrupted college-going patterns in the states
In Colorado, a snapshot of how the pandemic disrupted college-going patterns in the states The state not only saw fewer high school graduates heading straight to college—but those who did go were less prepared.

Low pay in ‘helping’ professions creates a moral dilemma for colleges
Low pay in ‘helping’ professions creates a moral dilemma for colleges The pandemic and concerns about equity have colleges questioning whether they can continue to offer credentials in low-paying caregiving fields.

Open Tabs

Cosmetology Wages

The Biden administration’s postponed gainful-employment rule would spur a makeover of the cosmetology training industry, according to the Century Foundation. Roughly 1K cosmetology schools receive more than $1B in federal aid each year. Yet the group said 98% of cosmetology programs would fail the rule’s threshold for graduates to make more on average than workers with only high school diplomas. 

Enrollment Crisis

More than half (52%) of the high school Class of 2022 filed a FAFSA form by July, topping the rates from this point during the past two years, according to the National College Attainment Network. The rebound in this key indicator of first-time college attendance rates suggests a possible slowing of enrollment declines. But the FAFSA-filing rate has not recovered to pre-pandemic levels.

Employee Benefits

Walmart’s Live Better U college benefit program, which it offers for free to 1.5M U.S. workers, is designed to expand opportunities for employees both inside and outside the company, said John Furner, Walmart’s president and CEO, in an interview with Andy Van Kleunen, the CEO of the National Skills Coalition. Furner said the program’s goals include helping employees find jobs elsewhere in the 5K communities where Walmart has locations.

Caesars Entertainment expanded tuition benefits for its nearly 50K eligible U.S. employees. The program now covers low- to no-cost degree programs from Strayer and Capella Universities, as well as free courses from Sophia Learning, an online general education course platform. The three for-profit providers are owned by Strategic Education, which manages corporate education benefits through its Workforce Edge program.

Latino Graduates

Excelencia in Education examined efforts around career success at seven prominent Hispanic-serving institutions. Several of the colleges had adopted specific definitions of post-completion success, were monitoring equity gaps, and were going beyond traditional exit surveys to track students’ career readiness. But the group found that institutions have plenty of room to improve—particularly in forging connections with employers.

Expanding Apprenticeships

The Missouri Chamber Foundation’s Industry Driven IT Apprenticeship program has trained 1,565 tech workers—including 640 people of color—since its creation with a $6M federal grant two years ago. The foundation committed $2.7M to the grant program, which is designed to help companies expand or create new federally registered apprenticeships. Employers kicked in $2.9M in the grant’s first year.

Achieve Partners is seeking to acquire 10 companies that each will hire and train 1K apprentices per year during the next decade. The private equity firm’s companies hired 381 apprentices in the fund’s first year. Half were women and most (69%) were from underrepresented minority groups. The apprentices saw an average salary increase of $17K, with projected wages of $80K after completing the training.

Career Satisfaction

Three in five adults with an associate degree or higher say they are satisfied with their education and earn substantially more than the typical high school graduate, according to a new analysis from the Strada Education Network. However, one in 10 degree-holders has neither seen a substantial wage premium nor feels fulfilled by their education. People working in STEM, business, and healthcare had the strongest outcomes.

Allied Health

The American Association of Medical Assistants has increased the number of testing locations for its certification exam—medical assistants can now register for the CMA at 500 U.S. sites. The certification is a signal of successfully completed training as well as graduation from an accredited medical assistant program, a potentially valuable boost for workers in the high-demand, lower-wage field.

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