Bold Proposals to Strengthen Higher Education and Workforce Alignment

by Su Jin Gatlin Jez

Executive Director


Topics: Community Colleges, Employment, Enrollment, Race and Ethnicity, State Coordination, Ed Equity, Adults, Workforce


Both California’s economy and public higher education system are among the strongest in the world. However, shifts in work and growing economic inequality have led to increased demands for workforce development, including postsecondary education. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated these shifts and made workforce development needs even more urgent. California’s economy requires higher education to transform in order to ensure our state maintains its strength and addresses growing inequities. As many in the policy sphere are formulating their agenda for the upcoming legislative session, consider the following five bold policy solutions to create better alignment between higher education and workforce:

  • A GI Bill-like grant program for underpaid essential frontline workers without degrees: Building off the spirit of the new Golden State Education and Training Program Grant, develop a scholarship program that has similar benefits to the GI Bill, providing underpaid frontline workers without degrees with financial aid that covers the full cost of attendance, including tuition and fees, housing, and books.
  • Postsecondary training with a job offer for completers: Improve college access and reduce the risk students face in making college choice decisions by growing new college pathways that lead to a good job upon completion.
  • An Adult-Serving Institution designation: Develop an Adult-Serving Institution designation that recognizes colleges and universities successfully meeting adult students needs through adult-centered structures and programs.
  • Postsecondary-workforce compacts: Seed new and energize existing local, sector-based postsecondary-workforce compacts that effectively engage higher education and employers to address labor market needs.
  • Career pathway initiatives: Increase higher education institutions’ use of equitable career pathway initiatives to provide stackable credentials aligned with in-demand occupations while providing student support services.

None of these solutions alone will solve the problem, and all have been successfully implemented at a small scale, in other sectors, or targeting a different student population. The following insights aim to promote understanding of their possibility as part of a solution set to aligning higher education and workforce.

A GI Bill-like Grant Program for Underpaid Essential Frontline Workers without Degrees

The first GI Bill helped World War II veterans transition back into civilian life, expand the middle class, and prevent the economic upheaval that resulted at the end of World War I when veterans flooded the civilian labor market. A cornerstone of the GI Bill was providing tuition and living expenses for veterans to attend college (the GI Bill also provided low-interest mortgages). These World War II heroes were recognized for their sacrifice and policymakers realized that investing in their futures was not only good for them but good for the nation. The same is true for California’s millions of underpaid frontline workers who continued to work in-person through the pandemic—grocery store clerks, Grubhub and UPS drivers, Amazon warehouse workers, farmworkers, low-paid healthcare staff, meat factory workers, and the list goes on. They faced worse COVID-19 survival rates, and many lost their lives or face long-term health challenges. It is our turn to say thank you and invest in their futures, as they did for our state—allowing us to have the historic state budget surplus we have today.

California should create a GI Bill program for underpaid essential frontline workers who do not have a degree. This program should cover the full cost of attendance, as many do not have financial resources and financial aid programs poorly support students outside the traditional college pathway. While many eligible individuals would likely not participate, this program has the potential to give California a real chance at making a dent in the college attainment rates of our state’s working poor and working class. The state could consider expanding this program to include the millions of Californians who were also displaced during the pandemic-driven recession. Through no fault of their own, record numbers of Californians face unemployment with no real prospect of re-employment in the near future. Moreover, given how difficult it can be to take the step into college in mid-life, California should also extend the benefits to the children of eligible individuals, as they also are making huge sacrifices during this crisis.

California could identify a cohort and use one-time funds to provide significant aid for these students, making college a reality for millions of deserving residents.

Postsecondary Training with a Job Offer for Completers

Obtaining gainful employment is the primary reason most Americans pursue higher education. For some, it is the only reason. Yet enrolling in higher education also requires a significant expenditure of time and effort, possibly cutting back on work income, and potentially incurring debt—a big price to pay if that education does not lead to a better job. What if a postsecondary education program came with a guarantee that every student would have a job upon graduation?

In the US, this job guarantee model is already used in very limited ways. For example, some police and fire departments offer entry-level positions to recruits conditional on their successfully completing their respective training academies. Likewise, the military awards commissioned officer ranks to qualified individuals who complete a college degree through Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) programs at various colleges and at the service academies and who commit to serve for a fixed period.

This proposal is not about the federal (or state) government guaranteeing every adult a job. Nor does it refer to those colleges and boot camps that guarantee their graduates who cannot find a job will get something in return (usually additional education at no additional cost). It also does not require individuals to work before or during their education, as is the case with apprenticeships, internships, and cooperative education programs (co-ops). Finally, it does not duplicate current state programs that recruit and retain students into high-need professions, like teaching and health professions, to serve in underserved areas with financial incentives, like loan repayments. Rather, it envisions that private and public employers would offer employment to potential hires before they complete their postsecondary education. By virtually eliminating the risk of ending up with a degree but no job, this model would make higher education a substantially more appealing option for Californians seeking to better their economic opportunities. At the same time, this proposal would benefit employers by encouraging a reliable and predictable supply of skilled workers in in-demand occupations.

An Adult-Serving Institution Designation

Higher education and workforce alignment is particularly critical for adult (25+ years old) students. As such, restructuring institutions to better serve adult students will propel institutions to address workforce needs. However, the college choice process is complex and daunting even for students in a traditional college-going path at a college preparatory high school with college-educated parents. For students outside of this realm, particularly adults, identifying a college well-suited for the significant obligations older students face (such as children and work) is nearly impossible—and many first-generation students opt for predatory for-profit colleges that advertise their institutions are well-suited to address adult students’ needs.

To help adults identify institutions that are truly well-structured to deliver a quality program for an adult student population, the state should develop an Adult-Serving Institution Designation. Institutions would earn this designation by meeting state-identified requirements (to be developed), such as programs of study in high-wage, high-demand fields and the ability to earn credit for prior learning.

The development of this designation would have the additional benefit of making clear to institutions how to better serve adults. If the state further leverages this designation for funding, institutions would have an increased incentive to make the reforms needed to earn the designation.

Public policy uses such designations across sectors. In higher education, Hispanic-serving institutions and minority-serving institutions are well-recognized statuses. An example in another sector is LEED certifications, which identifies environmentally-friendly construction and buildings.

While this designation could be developed and certified by state or some other entity (e.g., a state or national association), the state could propel the creation of the designation and then encourage institutions to seek it out through various incentives, such as reporting on the components of the designation or providing grants to help institutions make needed changes to earn the designation.

In the policy recommendations sections of our research on college access and success for adults, we identify traits of adult-friendly institutions that could be used in developing criteria for the designation. See:

Local, Multi-Employer, Sector-Based Postsecondary-Workforce Compacts

To combat the persistent and pervasive disinterest from many corners of higher education in students’ career development, the state could leverage and expand on existing employer advisory groups by inviting higher education leaders to form postsecondary-workforce compacts. We recommend building local, sector-based postsecondary-workforce compacts that effectively engage key parties (higher education, particularly faculty, employers, labor, students, and civic leaders) to seed strategies that address local needs. These compacts could build off of existing efforts, such as the California Community Colleges Regional Consortia, and should start with a coalition of the willing.

Postsecondary-workforce compacts could accelerate culture change. The most critical challenge to deep engagement is overcoming higher education’s disinterest in its role in career readiness, which has made it difficult to deeply engage employers and labor in postsecondary activities. We recommend the state leverage employer and labor advisory groups to stretch their engagement into postsecondary-workforce compacts to drive culture change in higher education and wider adoption of critical strategies. Specific critical strategies that a compact may want to advance in its local context include work-based learning, shared facilities, provision of relevant and actionable labor market and career information to faculty and students, and leveraging existing funding, programs, and services with shared or similar goals. Effective postsecondary-workforce compacts would allow for the development and implementation of solutions that address the unique challenges of California’s diverse localities and alleviate the need for the state to drum up a one-size-fits-all approach.

The state could build off of existing higher education advisory groups that include local stakeholders, such as the California Community Colleges Regional Consortia. The use and effectiveness of such groups varies across the state, but typically these groups only provide input as a higher education institution launches a new program. Even then, the advisory groups are rarely engaged beyond the early stages. They are not invited to observe the program once it’s been developed, they are not invited to craft work-based learning opportunities for students, and they are not asked to help place students in jobs after they complete the program. Additionally, while many local and regional partnerships exist throughout the state, only a few are effective and equitable.

As a result, we recommend the state transition these advisory groups into compacts where each party (the postsecondary institution, including faculty; students; employers; labor; and, ideally, civic leadership) makes a commitment to the shared goal of promoting increased alignment between the college or university and the economy through the preparation of career-ready graduates in specific high-demand, high-wage fields. The compact could outline each party’s commitments and key decision points where the compact will be engaged. An effective postsecondary-workforce compact would continually improve its strategy and tactics in meeting the needs of the region. The state could use existing resources to develop and sustain the compact and provide capacity-building support for the implementation of specific strategies that California has already invested in, have been recommended by previous task forces (such as the Lifting Children and Families Out of Poverty Task Force), or are new innovations to be explored. These specific strategies could include those listed in this memo or others, such as work-based learning, connecting workforce development programs to higher education institutions, employers and postsecondary institutions sharing facilities, and connecting faculty and students with actionable labor market and career information.

The three primary local or regional workforce development groups that connect to (or may connect to) postsecondary education are the California Community Colleges Regional Consortia, Local Workforce Development Boards, and the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act (Perkins V). Beyond those, numerous other groups and ad-hoc collaborations between postsecondary institutions and employers exist.

An example of an effective postsecondary-workforce compact is the Antelope Valley Workforce Development Program. This program is a collaboration in preparing local college students with the skills needed by one of the largest aerospace industries, Northrop Grumman in Southern California. The partnership is between Northrop Grumman, Antelope Valley College, the City of Palmdale, the Los Angeles County Department of Community and Senior Services, Goodwill, and the South Valley American Job Center of California. The program focuses on aerospace, and costs $1,300 per student. The funding comes from a mixture of WIOA funds, Pell Grants and Northrop Grumman itself.

California Forward recognizes selected partnerships in their Partnerships for Industry and Education contest.

Career Pathway Initiatives

Career pathways articulate a progression of job titles and how they can be obtained with corresponding educational and workforce achievements within a broad occupational field. These achievements consist of certificates and degrees awarded by postsecondary institutions, registered apprenticeship certificates, occupational licenses issued by government agencies (such as for nursing, teaching, and cosmetology), industry-recognized certifications (in fields as varied as automotive repair, personal training, and project management), and other skill certificates indicating completion of a specific course or the acquisition of knowledge. As defined in federal law, career pathways must also align with local employers’ needs, prepare participants for additional education, and provide participants with educational and career counseling.

Career pathways are one way for higher education institutions to provide programs that are aligned with in-demand occupations while offering prospective students multiple entry points and opportunities to advance over time by obtaining higher education in discrete increments as well as by making a large upfront commitment. Career pathways are appealing because they allow the students to immediately gain work experience in the field and then return later with their credits counting toward the next certificate or degree. They are a way to support students who want to develop career skills but may not have the flexibility in their work and family schedules to commit to a longer-term program or the financial resources to reduce their work and caregiving commitments.

A key component of each career pathway is stackable credentials, a series of educational and workforce achievements that combine to propel individuals along the pathway by signaling attainment of knowledge and experience. The field of education offers a straightforward illustration of how stackable credentials in career pathways work in practice and how employees who complete additional education and licenses can advance in the field all at once or over time. Individuals with as few as six credits in early childhood education can enter the field of education as teacher aides. Those who go on to earn an associate’s degree, ideally using the credits already earned (in other words, stacking on those credits), can advance to be assistant teachers. The next stop on the pathway is employment as credentialed teachers or administrators, occupations that require a bachelor’s degree. Education professionals who seek a more senior administrative position (such as a school principal) or a related occupation (such as a social worker) can further continue their education to earn a master’s degree, a doctorate, or both. In addition to meeting the educational requirements, teachers and principals employed at public schools would also complete the government-issued licenses (commonly referred to as credentials) required for their respective positions.

The Center for Postsecondary and Economic Success’s working paper and a more recent US Department of Education publication offer a framework for developing and improving career pathways at community colleges that can also be extended to undergraduate programs at other types of institutions. The recommendations in both reports for developing quality career pathways are to design pathways thoughtfully and deliberately, incorporate basic skills topics within pathways, provide flexible modes of instruction and assessment, offer extensive academic and nonacademic support services, and maintain relationships between institutions and employers. Even within a prescriptive framework like this, there are many approaches to instituting and improving career pathways.

Like all aspects of higher education, career pathways must be thoughtfully designed with equity at the center. Without this, the value of career pathways is questionable and there may be serious drawbacks, specifically for students of color. One study of a health pathways program at a group of nine community colleges found 28 percent of white students and 26 percent of students from Asian backgrounds earned either a longer-term certificate or an associate’s degree, compared with only 17 percent of Black students and 16 percent of Latinx students. This gap is concerning because while white and Black students were roughly as likely to earn short-term certificates (28 percent versus 23 percent, respectively), Black students were less likely to move on to longer-term credentials. These disparate outcomes can and must be addressed in the design of the pathways.