Photo by Daniel X. O'Neil via Creative Commons.

City Colleges of Chicago goes big with its public-private partnership with One Million Degrees, a nonprofit providing mentors and a wide range of student supports. Also, workforce education has become good national politics, but dollars have been slow to follow.

The Job
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A weekly newsletter about the intersection of education and work. By Paul Fain

Tapping Outside Help

The Chicago-based One Million Degrees is one of a handful of groups nationwide that have proven their ability to move the needle for community college students by offering them wraparound supports. The nonprofit’s approach is heavy on mentorship and social capital and seeks to boost the economic mobility of participating students.

Leadership at City Colleges of Chicago is a believer in the model. The two-year system, which includes seven colleges and five satellite sites, is ramping up its partnership with One Million Degrees by planning to grow student participation from 900 to 3K students by 2026, and thousands more going forward.

Under the expansion, all new and re-enrolling students at participating colleges who take nine credits and are pursuing a degree will be automatically accepted into the OMD program.

“We are building on what works,” says Aneesh Sohoni, the group’s CEO.

Sohoni points to research from the University of Chicago Inclusive Economy Lab, which found that students who applied to the program before enrolling in college are 70% more likely to enroll, 94% more likely to persist, and 73% more likely to graduate.

The growing partnership with City Colleges is part of a trend of community colleges tapping the expertise of student support organizations, says Rachel Pleasants McDonnell, a director at Jobs for the Future.

“There’s a lot of power in having external partners,” she says. “You don’t need to rely on the college to do everything itself.”

McDonnell says some community colleges are working more closely with locally grounded human services groups, to provide coordinated support to low-income students and their families. For example, she cites the Kresge Foundation–funded partnership between LaGuardia Community College and Commonpoint Queens.

“Colleges are getting there. But it is still a culture shift,” says McDonnell.

Public-Private Partnership

No individual piece of the program from One Million Degrees is unique, Sohoni says. It’s the four core components together that make a difference.

“OMD students receive performance-based stipends up to $1,000 annually, the attention of a full-time program coordinator, a volunteer coach, and professional development experiences to help them bridge from education to career,” says Sohoni.

A public-private partnership has raised more than $20M for the expansion.

The financial backing will allow the group to sustainably bring its customized support system to students across all seven colleges, Sohoni says. And the system’s investment should generate returns.

“We are hopeful that because the OMD program boosts college enrollment, persistence, and credits attempted, it will drive increased and sustainable tuition revenue for partner colleges,” he says.

The Inclusive Economy Lab will monitor the group’s progress. “We very much see this expansion as building the case for a national model and national expansion,” says Sohoni.

One Million Degrees has had success in fundraising, including a $7M gift last December from MacKenzie Scott. And it’s efficient with coaching by tapping a large group of volunteer mentors from across Chicagoland, who work with students who attend partner community colleges.

“Our mentorship costs are isolated to recruitment and support,” Sohoni says, “which we anticipate will scale up through partnerships.”

The group is focused on upward mobility for students, either through immediate entry to the workforce or pursuit of a four-year degree. It offers them monthly career exposure sessions through partnerships with employers, who are a key source of volunteer mentors. OMD also has been involved with the Chicago Apprenticeship Network, perhaps the most successful regional effort to boost apprenticeships, and currently provides support to roughly 200 apprentices through its earn-and-learn program.

Sohoni says many employers and organizations around the country are thinking through how to better connect K-12, postsecondary education, and the workforce.

The Kicker: “We’re in the early phases of developing an advisory service to help partners outside of Chicago do just that, focusing on continuity and experiential learning at key points of transition for students,” he says.

Click over to Work Shift to read a Q&A with Sohoni.


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The Bully Pulpit

Workforce policy may never capture the imagination like a moon shot or free college for all. But it’s not bad politics these days.

“Workforce is sexy now,” says Mike Bartlett, program manager for postsecondary and workforce success at the National League of Cities.

That’s particularly true for Democrats who have been struggling to connect with Americans without college degrees. It’s the thrust of recent coverage of President Biden’s bid for re-election. And it’s the backdrop of a new set of initiatives announced by the White House this week.

The new efforts—regional workforce hubs, an advanced manufacturing workforce “sprint,” and a Good Jobs, Great Cities Academy—are all focused on getting workers quickly retrained to fill millions of jobs being created by recovery dollars and major investments in infrastructure and key industries like semiconductors.

There’s been a steady drumbeat of such workforce news out of the administration with a major focus on:

  • Good jobs for workers without four-year degrees.
  • Helping metros and other regions outside the superstar cities develop specific industry strengths and employer clusters.

First Lady Jill Biden, who has spent her career teaching at community colleges, has been the public face of many of these announcements.

“When I was growing up, success meant one thing: getting a four-year degree… There are still a lot of people who feel that way,” she said at a national workforce convening this week. But the president, she said, isn’t one of them.

Jill Biden often tells her students, “Things are changing.”

“My husband, Joe, understands that, for most people, a high school diploma alone isn’t enough to find a great career,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean there’s only one path to success.”

It’s easy to forget what a big departure this is from previous administrations, especially Democratic ones. President Obama began increasing investments in apprenticeships, a move that the Trump administration continued. And President Trump also pushed the federal government toward skills-based hiring, but in both cases those moves were drowned out by other narratives.

“Biden is the first president that’s reducing the need to get a college degree since World War II,” Douglas Brinkley, a leading presidential historian, recently told The New York Times.

For Biden, good jobs for Americans without degrees is a central part of his administration’s massive push to revitalize the nation’s infrastructure, supercharge new regions of the country, and outcompete China.

Show Me the Money

Despite Biden’s focus on creating alternative pathways to good jobs, not many new dollars for workforce training have made it through Congress. Instead, cities, states, and even employers are being called on to direct some of the billions flowing through the American Rescue Plan, the infrastructure law, and the CHIPS Act to fund training for the jobs those investments stand to create.

For example, the new Good Jobs, Great Cities Academy—a partnership between the National League of Cities and the Department of Labor—will be run by the league and supported by philanthropy, not federal funding. The academy will bring together 16 small (think Kokomo, Ind.) to large (like San Antonio and Newark, N.J.) cities to share ideas and get help creating new training models, bringing existing work to scale and embedding workforce development in applications for infrastructure funding and other grants.

The flow of federal investment that can be used to boost economic opportunity in cities—even if it’s not specifically training dollars—is enormous right now, says Bartlett, who will help run the new academy. “We’re probably not going to get this opportunity again for many years.”

The Details: Learning from one another and creating partnerships across K-12, higher education, workforce agencies, and employers will be a major focus of the new academy, Bartlett says.

“Cities don’t control schools, don’t control colleges, but they have a very important role in bringing stakeholders together around the table,” he says. “They can use that bully pulpit.”

Kokomo, for example, will be partnering with the Ivy Tech Community College system and the local workforce board to train workers for a new $2.5B electric vehicle battery plant that is expected to bring 1,400 jobs to the city of about 60K. The state’s economic development corporation has put up $2M for training grants. Kokomo’s goal in joining the academy is not only to help residents compete for the battery plant jobs, but also to grow the region’s pipeline of qualified workers longer term in order to attract more employers that are part of the EV supply chain.

The goal at the end of the academy, Bartlett says, is to have 16 examples of what those kinds of partnerships can look like in cities of all sizes.

That said, it’s already clear that a bully pulpit and onetime recovery and infrastructure funds will only go so far to help more people land good jobs, says Stephanie Martinez-Ruckman, legislative director for human development for NLC.

The Kicker: “So much of this innovation happening between cities and the federal government is great,” Martinez-Ruckman says. “But the federal government hasn’t really invested much in workforce development.”

“Without putting those funds in there, we really will struggle to do this at scale in every community,” she says. —By Elyse Ashburn

Open Tabs

Degree Requirements
South Dakota recently became the latest state to drop four-year degree requirements for certain jobs in state government. The executive order signed last month by Kristi Noem, the state’s Republican governor, calls for a review of job duties and for the state to consider work experience when a degree is not necessary. South Dakota follows similar moves by Maryland, Utah, Colorado, Alaska, New Jersey, and North Carolina.

National Security
Students need both a broad base of knowledge and tangible skills to be job ready on graduation day, Seth Bodnar, president of the University of Montana and a U.S. Army veteran, writes in The Washington Post. “We as a country must rally around higher education in all forms—two-year, four-year and short-term vocational training—as an American institution that needs to adapt and change but also remains indispensable for our long-term security.”

Learning Ecosystem
Growing demand for learning by doing—technology-driven learning in the workplace through internships, badges, and apprenticeships—is partially due to the difficulty colleges face in keeping pace with rapid technological change, writes Louis Soares, chief learning and innovation officer for the American Council on Education. In a new brief, Soares calls for a deeper understanding of the emerging learning ecosystem.

Graduate Credentials
U.S. Census Bureau data reveal that roughly 500K students enrolled this year in nondegree and noncredit graduate programs but were not counted in graduate student enrollment figures from the U.S. Department of Education, according to an analysis by Richard Garrett, Eduventures Chief Research Officer at Encoura. Garrett says this finding is consistent with the boom in nondegree offerings though platforms like Coursera and edX.

Income Sharing
Results from an experimental income-share agreement program from the University of Utah show high bachelor’s degree retention and completion rates for student participants, according to a new study on the pilot, which the university suspended last year. Participation was low, however, with only 111 ISA students in the first two years of the program. And early data on repayment are mixed and reveal potential inequities in repayment rates.

Healthcare Training
A new public-private partnership in North Carolina seeks to “aggressively address” the state’s healthcare workforce shortages, including a projected need for 17,500 more nurses over the next decade. The collaboration between the NC Chamber Foundation and the NC Center on the Workforce for Health seeks to create nine employer-led regional talent pipelines across the state, including systems of support to help people complete training programs.

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—Paul Fain

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