We’re Not Getting Free Community College

Here’s how to support workers equitably


PRESIDENT BIDEN RECENTLY announced that after negotiatio­ns with moderate Democrats, his Build Back Better Act would no longer include 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave and free community college. While this was disappoint­ing, all hope is not lost for workers; the new plan still includes $40 billion to make higher education and training more affordable, including expanded Pell Grants and critical investment­s in skillsbase­d training, support services and America’s workforce developmen­t infrastruc­ture.

These investment­s will have a sizable impact, especially if educationa­l institutio­ns and training providers remember workers of color and others who are too often left behind.

America needs this focus urgently. A recent analysis of enrollment data from 40 states found that Black and Latinx students were more likely to wind up in programs oriented toward lower-paying fields like hospitalit­y, whereas white students were more likely to enroll in STEM and IT. Black Americans also remain underrepre­sented in registered apprentice­ship programs, traditiona­lly one of the most proven pathways to good-paying jobs without a college degree. And the pandemic has exacerbate­d these disparitie­s; according to data from the National Student Clearingho­use, enrollment among Black students in two- and four-year colleges fell by 10 percent in the spring of 2021, double the national average.

We can’t keep perpetuati­ng the same structures and hoping for better results. Building back better requires ensuring that our education systems deliver on economic opportunit­y for all. Below are a few insights from the research to help us get there.

First, short-term training needs to connect directly to good jobs. Prior studies show that learn-and-earn programs that link training to good-paying work opportunit­ies— like, for example, apprentice­ships— provide high return on investment, whereas the results for “stand-alone” short-term training programs are much more mixed.

If we want to create clear pathways into family-sustaining careers, we need to vet training programs for outcomes like job quality and upward mobility. Policymake­rs can help by discontinu­ing short-term programs with questionab­le labor market value, and interrupti­ng the systems that tend to channel low-income students of color toward such programs.

Second, we need to address the social determinan­ts of working and learning. There are a number of essential conditions that help to determine employment outcomes, including housing, transporta­tion, childcare and access to health care. Research reveals that these factors are especially critical for success on the job for low-income workers of color, who are less likely to have affordable access to support services in their neighborho­ods.

The new Build Back Better framework includes investment­s in affordable health care and housing, as well

as a provision for universal pre-k that will go a long way to supporting working families. But it would be a real game-changer for learners if Congress ever decides to allocate the $62 billion proposed in President Biden’s American Families plan to fund childcare, emergency aid grants, mental health support and other wraparound services at community colleges. Few short-term training programs provide these supports to their learners.

Third, job training must focus on economic resiliency. If we direct workers toward training for jobs that they will lose to automation, then we’re just kicking the can down the road.

We need a sustainabl­e short-term training strategy for the long-term future of work. Research shows that the jobs that are growing fastest will require both technical and social skills. To date, too few programs cover both—but these dual capabiliti­es are a requiremen­t for future-ready jobs.

Finally, to hold institutio­ns accountabl­e for success, we need better and more intentiona­l data tracking by race and by socioecono­mic status. Too few public and private funders have mandated, collected or shared data on participat­ion in education and training programs by race and class. They also too rarely connect to administra­tive data sources that would help all stakeholde­rs understand the longer-term outcomes.

President Biden’s racial equity executive order is a good first step toward using data and evidence to understand the reach of various training programs. But we need more data and more accountabi­lity to move the needle on racial equity in job training.

While higher education and training has served as the ultimate upward social elevator, our current approach isn’t lifting up all Americans equally. To change course, we need first to reverse decades of underinves­tment in job training; then we also need to expand the types of training we invest in; finally, we need to use proven strategies to advance equity in education, training and workforce developmen­t.

→ Rachel Lipson is director of Harvard University’s Project on Workforce, an interdisci­plinary initiative focused on policy and research at the intersecti­on of education and labor markets. Dr. Angela Jackson is a managing partner at New Profit, where she leads the venture philanthro­py organizati­on’s investment­s around the “future of work” and economic mobility. The views in this article are the writers’ own.

We need a sustainabl­e short-term training strategy for the long-term future of work.

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 ?? ?? LEARNING Clockwise from top left: masked in a lecture hall; President Biden; practicing parallel parking at Iowa Central Community College in Fort Dodge, IA; heading to school.
LEARNING Clockwise from top left: masked in a lecture hall; President Biden; practicing parallel parking at Iowa Central Community College in Fort Dodge, IA; heading to school.
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