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Even before COVID-19 hit, higher education was falling short of providing the skills needed for good jobs, a recent study shows. Now, amid the global pandemic and economic crisis, those skills gaps are growing wider.

Though the study by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and supported by Lumina Foundation ended in 2019, it is strikingly relevant and important today as people adjust to learning and working remotely in an ever-shifting economy.

The study examined graduate outcomes and the labor markets in Ohio, Texas, Virginia, and Washington, four vastly different states in geography, policies, and people. Yet, all face similar challenges that will deepen as the pandemic drags on. There are severe shortages of qualified workers for health care and other in-demand jobs. Workplace opportunities such as internships are hard to find. And tight state budgets mean per-student resources are likely to fall further.

With those study results in hand, education leaders from the four states told a recent Lumina virtual conference how relevant and useful the study is for their own state and for what they have learned from each other. They are each working to create stronger pathways between education and work. For instance:

  • Texas is spending $46 million in emergency funds to “re-skill and up-skill” people in workforce education programs that provide high-value credentials.
  • Ohio is expanding its statewide availability of high-speed Wi-Fi, computers and other resources to make it easier to study and work from home.
  • Washington is offering cross-sector paths to guide workers from struggling industries such as retail to high-demand jobs such as health care and technology.
  • Virginia launched a multi-agency initiative to better align its college classes to employers’ needs while also rolling out new internship programs.

These innovative approaches could ultimately be scaled up as best practices to help other state policymakers, educators, and employers across the nation.

Unfair outcomes remain

Each state set ambitious post-high school attainment goals, following Lumina’s goal to help 60% of Americans earn quality post-high school degrees or credentials by 2025. In all, 45 states now have goals. Washington and Virginia are trying to reach 70% attainment by 2023 and 2030, respectively. Ohio is striving for 65% by 2025, and Texas is aiming for 60% by 2030. The national average today is at 51.3%.

As states make progress, inequitable attainment outcomes persist. For instance, Washington has achieved 60% attainment but struggles with attainment disparities by race and ethnicity: White students are at nearly 50% – significantly higher than Hispanic students at 23% and Black students at 38%.

The OECD survey showed that, on average, Blacks, Hispanics, and females earn less and get fewer job offers – even after college graduation. So, all four states are focused on students of color, adult learners, and others who have traditionally been left behind. “It’s important to dig deep and really understand the lives of the people we are trying to help,” said Mike Meotti, executive director of the Washington Student Achievement Council.

Across the nation, we need to address these unjust outcomes. Degrees and credentials by themselves are not enough – they must bring real opportunities for good jobs with living wages, benefits, and the chance to advance further.

Blueprint for change

The OECD’s report, which included 200 interviews with experts in education, labor, and policy, offers a valuable blueprint of next steps. It calls for better planning and analyses of data combined with close coordination across all sectors. It calls for increased funding and support to defray student costs and debt. And it calls for clearer paths to success for jobs in high-demand industries, such as health care, IT, and education.

VIDEO: Labor Market Relevance of Higher Education in 4 US States, a Lumina Foundation virtual conference

“We’ll mix the richness of this data with the urgency of our state’s needs to get results,” said Peter Blake, Virginia’s State Council of Higher Education director.

In Texas, “we’ll strategically use funding to build our capacity for workforce education programs across our 80 community colleges,” said Ray Martinez, Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board’s deputy commissioner.

“As we work, we’ll keep our eye on the other states and learn from their best practices,” added Cheri Rice, Ph.D., vice-chancellor of Higher Education Workforce Alignment at Ohio’s Department of Higher Education.

We have the data and the expertise. We have four states and many others leading the way. The next steps, as we also fight the pandemic, won’t be easy. But we have a good start and an inspiring goal. We’ll act with urgency as we help millions of Americans learn, earn, and contribute their talents to a better world.

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