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Experts Tie Student Success to Bridging Education and Workforce

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Dr. Aaron Thompson (center) makes a point during the roundtable discussion. (Provided Photo)
by LaMont Jones
Diverse Education

WASHINGTON – Better integration of education at all levels, eliminating the distinction between higher education and career preparation and more cooperation among local, state and federal policymakers can remove barriers and better prepare a workforce that increasingly includes individuals who don’t fit the traditional profile of college students.

Those were some of the suggestions made by two experts at a policy roundtable discussion Wednesday presented by Higher Learning Advocates, a nonprofit organization devoted to connecting federal policies with the needs of postsecondary students, employers and communities.

At the roundtable, titled “Bridging the Education-Workforce Divide: Upskilling America’s Workforce,” Dr. Aaron Thompson, president of the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education, and Dr. Jason Smith, partnership executive director of Bridging Richmond talent hub in Virginia, discussed challenges to bridging higher learning and the workforce and issues of access and success for students.

“The conversation itself is problematic and where to place emphasis in the pipeline,” said Smith. “We have to stop separating education and workforce preparation. We take those two parts and separate them out, and I think that’s really problematic. We need to start thinking about it all as being workforce preparation.”

Given the demographic changes and projections of postsecondary school populations in the United States, neotraditional or new traditional may be better terms for students long described as nontraditional. Through most of America’s recent history, the profile of an average college student was an unmarried middle-class White student attending full-time immediately after high school with parental financial support, living on campus and earning a bachelor’s degree in four to five years.

Today, however, only 13 percent of college students live on campus, 26 percent are parenting, 38 percent are older than 25, 40 percent attend part-time, 42 percent live at or below the federal poverty line, 47 percent are financially independent, 57 percent attend two-year colleges and 58 percent work while in school.

Add to those factors the unprecedented cultural diversity of student populations and diversity of postsecondary education options and the need to remove barriers to quality, affordability and successful outcomes for students becomes clear, said moderator and HLA deputy executive director Emily Bouck West.

A significant change in recent years, Thompson observed, is more students who perceive that they don’t have access to higher education and that they lack opportunities to succeed in that space, in spite of financial aid and other support systems designed to help students achieve both.

“Our job is to put value back in that value proposition,” said Thompson. “How do we change that? How do we talk about quality?”

A central part of the discussion should be greater alignment of educational arenas from preK-12 to two-year and four-year institutions, Thompson said. Providing quality education in a seamless continuum with career preparation as a central driver can help skeptical prospective postsecondary students – especially from underrepresented groups – see that education beyond high school is affordable and valuable, doable in a reasonable time and leads to employment, he said.

Breaking down silos between different types of postsecondary institutions can benefit students, said Smith, whether community colleges, baccalaureate programs, vocational-technical programs or online for-profit learning.

Data-sharing and articulation agreements that promote more thoughtful and efficient transfer of credit between schools can benefit students, Smith added. For example, a student may transfer from a community college to a four-year university without having earned a credential, but may find after one or two courses that those credits can be reverse-transferred to the community college and qualify the student for an associate’s degree.

Post-secondary students drop out or stop out for a range of personal issues, from financial to family concerns. Better credit-transfer rules and other such policy changes – which local, state and federal policies could promote – would increase the number of students completing a credential and help move more workers into the employment pipeline.

“One very different thing for students today is it is no longer the experience that you went to one institution and stayed there until you completed it,” said Smith. “People now are looking for learning they need for employment now. And where can I go later to add on? How can I stack into something that helps me over a long period of time?”

Smith and Thompson agreed that employers and schools must begin to work more closely together, and earlier in the formal education process, to ensure that student learning fits employer needs and expectations.

“There’s a need to get employers more involved on the front end in creating programs that matter and teach what they’re looking for,” said Thompson. “Everybody doesn’t have to go to college, but should have education post-high school that works. We need to be far more intentional in putting people on pathways, with employers engaged throughout the process for a continual-improvement model. We in higher education have to rethink how we’re doing business. And so do employers.”

Policies around financial aid also need to be revisited as both an access issue and a success issue, Thompson and Smith said. Paying for school and having the financial resources to meet human needs are concerns for traditional students as well as students from low-income and underrepresented groups, and guidelines around student loans and the Pell grant should be aligned with those needs, Thompson said.

Policymakers at the state and federal levels can play a role by incentivizing “disconnected” systems in higher ed to work better together for post-secondary students, said Smith.

Curriculum redesign informed by the employment sector as early as elementary school and wise use of outcomes data can close completion gaps and help students become culturally competent workforce participants, Thompson said.

“Schools need to align ourselves with a student success paradigm so we’re on the same page when talking about issues of quality and engagement,” he added.

Treating higher education as one system rather than multiple systems and helping students experience wrap-around services in a more integrated way “would go a long way” toward promoting the success of all students, Smith said.

“There needs to be a shift from an access-for-all mentality to a success-for-all mentality.”

LaMont Jones can be reached at ljones@diverseeducation.com. You can follow him on Twitter @DrLaMontJones.