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Perspectives from the Field: What it Takes to Translate Postsecondary Credentials to Upward Mobility

April 12, 2023 4-minute read
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Community colleges are widely considered an affordable option for learners from low-income backgrounds looking for upward mobility. However, public confidence in the value of postsecondary education is shaky, particularly at these institutions where the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reports a 37% enrollment decline since 2010. This drop is concerning for communities that count on community colleges to provide skilled labor for the local economy.

At Ascendium, our philanthropy prioritizes support for scalable postsecondary education practices that yield strong workforce outcomes for learners from low-income backgrounds. We talked to leaders from the Urban Institute and the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program about their work to identify high-value credentials — or those that lead to good jobs or transfer pathways — and the conditions community colleges need to create to implement and sustain these programs.

Urban Institute

The Urban Institute’s Shayne Spaulding, senior fellow, talked to us about Urban’s research project to identify and inform the design of career and technical education programs and pathways that lead to good jobs. The research will identify postsecondary education ecosystem changes that will support better outcomes for career and technical education programs and ensure learners have the information to make good choices.

What have you learned so far about the value of career and technical education credentials?

A lot of our research has confirmed that the type of credential needed really depends on the industry or sector and that the institution itself also matters. Community colleges, for example, provide less debt for students and have great potential to be a low-cost, high-value option. Community colleges serve a clear purpose in supporting the workforce. There is evidence that certain short-term career and technical education programs can have a better payoff than longer programs in certain fields.

What innovations show promise in guiding learners through these credentials and to good jobs?

It seems clear that career advising needs to happen early and on a regular basis so that students understand what classes to take and skills to develop and how these connect to employment outcomes. It is also important that employers are engaged in providing feedback on what skills are needed and how learning connects to these skills.

Aspen Institute College Excellence Program

In collaboration with the Community College Research Center, the Aspen Institute Unlocking Opportunity network supports 10 community colleges that have demonstrated strength in using data to identify models for delivering high-value credentials. The cohort of colleges will establish goals and strategies to strengthen both programs of study and advising systems to move more students to and through these high-value pathways. The three-year project’s goal is to increase the number and percentage of learners from low-income backgrounds who complete high-value programs. We talked to the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program Founder and Executive Director, Josh Wyner to learn more.

What gaps are there in connecting postsecondary education to the workforce, and what is working?

The best colleges are changing lives, and that means delivering education that leads to a good job. There are two paths to a good job for community college students: earning a workforce certificate or associate degree that leads directly to a job with family-sustaining wages or via transfer and bachelor’s attainment. To do this, effective community colleges create clear programs of study, ensure students have opportunities for applied learning and establish very strong intrusive advising systems. They also provide supports, meeting students’ nonacademic needs such as food insecurity, childcare and transportation to academic needs through embedded tutoring and supplemental instruction.

Community colleges also must deliver what employers and universities need. They need to sit down with universities and employers regularly, share data and build trust founded on a common goal.

What do you hope to see at the end of the three-year cycle and what are the implications of this work?

We believe that the 10 community colleges in our network can, collectively, enroll at least 12,000 learners in high value programs who otherwise would not have been. In addition, the colleges will have shown community colleges across the country that, by doing this work, they will not just improve outcomes but also gain enrollments because others on campus and in the community will hear from graduates how valuable the credentials they received are. That is what other great colleges have shown: If you have a reputation for delivering value, the enrollment will come.

As our conversations show, both Shayne and Josh are clear on the vital function of community colleges for regional economic development and upward learner mobility. They also understand community colleges need strong advising and community partnerships to ensure learners have effective pathways to good jobs and transfer opportunities. Ascendium shares their commitment to streamlining transitions between postsecondary education and the workforce so that all learners, especially those from low-income backgrounds can succeed in their career goals.