Higher education is getting at least three things right as colleges and universities pivot to confront some of the greatest challenges in the nation’s history.

First, despite its many challenges and need for self-reform, the system works in important ways. As The Hechinger Report has noted, people with education beyond high school not only earn much more on average, but live longer, divorce less frequently and are less prone to depression. The system is far from perfect, but that’s a good place to start.

For all higher ed’s problems—including rising costs, racial inequities, and uneven career preparation—the growth in college attainment has been one of the best social success strategies of the last 15 years. Since 2008, we’ve seen the percentage of people with college degrees or valuable credentials increase from 38 percent to 54 percent last year.

Society’s demand for talent continues to grow, to the point that two-thirds of good-paying jobs now require a post-high school credential. But the nation cannot meet that demand for talent without promoting greater fairness in the system by closing equity gaps in attainment. In building support for that fairness, it’s important to highlight how racial equity not only helps individuals but creates shared outcomes benefitting everyone.

The race for improvement increasingly focuses on the complicated needs of today’s students—needs that can be understood by imagining a three-legged stool. The legs are financial issues, academic challenges, and social / emotional needs. The problem with many of the strategies to help students is that they tend to work on these problems individually, without acknowledging how they interact.

A student may be worried about paying for college, dealing with job and childcare responsibilities, and even mental health issues. Those worries interact in real time, and schools need a comprehensive approach that recognizes all three areas.

We’re seeing real signs of progress in the way some schools address this:

  • At the University of Kentucky, the Office of Student Success helped increase its retention rate to 86 percent by taking a more holistic approach.
  • Delaware State, Bowie State, and Tuskegee are all HBCUs recognized for their efforts to support student mental health and wellness.
  • California Community Colleges are using $30 million in new state funding to establish basic needs centers.
  • Florida International University, with more than 75 percent students of color, has been recognized for academic, financial, and social supports. Washington Monthly ranked FIU 19th among 442 national universities for enrolling Pell Grant students and graduating them into good-paying jobs.

This is a case where technology is also helping—especially in coaching and advising. Coaching often works well but is labor-intensive and expensive. As artificial intelligence systems improve and spread beyond customer service applications, we will see them increasingly working with human counselors to better support our students.

In addition to this more holistic approach to supporting students, institutions are working hard in two other areas:

Building New Partnerships

Educators and their advocates are working much harder to explain what they do and how students and society both benefit. At many campuses, that includes closer relationships with local companies that offer internships and other opportunities for immersive learning. It means emphasizing the job-finding benefits of associate and bachelor’s degrees.

And it means highlighting the enormous opportunities provided by certificates and other high-quality, short-term credentials. In this case, high quality means value not only in the job market, but also as a step to additional learning. These “stackable” credentials build toward deeper learning, higher-level credentials, and greater economic and social benefits. So rather than seeing learning and earning as separate phases of life, a better system provides lifelong opportunities for earning, learning, and serving.

There are headwinds, to be sure. A 2020 survey of business leaders by Boston Consulting Group and Google found that only 36 percent believe higher ed gives graduates adequate training for jobs. More than 80 percent favored closer alignment of curricula with job openings and skills gaps.

But partnerships are growing across the country. Amazon Web Services, for example, has established programs at more than 200 colleges in the United States to train students in cloud computing technology.

In New York, LaGuardia Community College in Queens is working with regional healthcare groups in a nine-credit program that trains students in medical billing. The school says its completion rate is nearly 90 percent, with 80 percent of graduates hired into medical billing and similar jobs.

Telling the Story

It’s common today to hear talk about the great divide in America. A better way to think of that is to consider how politics bifurcates the public dialogue. There’s no sure answer to this, but progress will come from being clearer about higher ed’s contributions—economic, social, and cultural—for individuals and society.

That means plain talk, avoiding the jargon that loses people in these conversations: Higher ed is about preparing people for work and for life. But there is a greater need now to be clear about what that means—how work has changed in modern society, and what is expected of graduates in terms of contributing to their community through good citizenship.

The system faces an unprecedented stress test but has history on its side. For nearly a century, the rest of the world has looked to the United States as the model of higher education. We’ve been seen as the engine of progress, the emblem of opportunity drawing people here from across the globe.

That worldwide regard for our higher education system stems from the benefits it produces in earning power and life success. But it’s also rooted in college graduates’ vital role in powering and protecting our democracy, strengthening our economy, and bolstering national security.

Higher ed needs to change. But it is getting some important things right. Education’s supporters should remember that—and speak up—when facing the challenges ahead.

This article was originally published in Forbes.

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