As the presidential campaign of 2020 kicks into high gear, the stagnation of worker earnings in recent decades has drawn much attention and comment from the candidates. Yet, outside of advocating for a few trendy proposals like free college, the candidates have said little to date on how to improve education and skills, especially those that are highly rewarded in the US labor market, among the roughly two-thirds of Americans who do not attain BAs. The candidates’ relative silence is especially noteworthy in a year when both the Higher Education Act (HEA) and the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) are up for reauthorization, and at a time when fairly tight labor markets make it harder for employers to find and retain the skilled workers they need.
What are the problems and barriers that keep students from gaining the skills that the US labor market rewards? Aside from affordability, students at America’s community colleges get too little support and guidance about what they can realistically achieve in college and what the labor market rewards; too many students wander aimlessly, taking liberal arts classes in the hope of transferring to 4-year schools, while not completing a meaningful credential there. The colleges themselves cannot afford to provide more supports or scale their occupational programs in high-demand fields like health care and IT, but they also face too few incentives to do so – since such programs are expensive, and college funding is rarely tied to better future employment outcomes of students. Employers engage too little with these institutions, thus making it hard to scale successful partnerships in high-demand economic sectors that provide classroom training or work-based learning (like apprenticeships). And students at the for-profit institutions either fail to complete programs, or earn credentials with low market value, while racking up high debts and frequently defaulting on their loans.