As we talk about the enormous value of education beyond high school to families and the nation, we need to be sure we’re listening, too—something we don’t always do so well.

Sarah Hughes, chair of the Colorado Commission for Higher Education, makes this point as well as anybody. In a recent visit, we talked about how educators and community members sometimes talk past each other.

“No one is arguing that a four-year degree isn’t a gold standard, or that the four-year degree doesn’t help provide security in economic downturns,” she said.

“But if you can’t access that gold standard, it doesn’t matter that it’s a gold standard.”

This partly explains why college enrollment has failed to keep up with the demands for talent, even as some signs point to a possible bounce-back this year.

Sometimes presidents and policy leaders are baffled that students don’t enroll, even as costs are lowered. But the issue for many students isn’t just tuition. They feel that they can’t afford to pass up income opportunities while pursuing a traditional four-year degree, even as they question their employment prospects after graduation.

“We’re missing a real opportunity to address the enrollment decline,” Sarah said. “In many cases, we’re delivering a product that isn’t meeting the needs of the population we’re trying to serve—especially for the 40 million Americans who enroll and don’t complete a degree, or those who don’t attend at all.”

If we’re honest about it, we could also do a better job explaining ourselves. Economists have used the phrase “foregone income” for decades—again, the idea that time spent pursuing a degree is time not spent earning.

But flip that idea on its head and consider instead “foregone opportunity,” the chances for better jobs and life success people miss by not getting valuable credentials.

There’s a fine line here, I know. A person who cannot immediately afford additional education shouldn’t be told that only one specific pathway, a four-year degree, for example, is the only route. In some cases, they’re hearing something we’re not saying: That it’s college or failure.

“We’ve heard from many learners in Colorado and from people who have been working directly with Latino males,” Sarah said, referring to the work of TeRay Esquibel of the Ednium community development group in Denver. “The message that they were hearing was, ‘you failed’ if you didn’t pursue these things. You are less-than if you haven’t pursued these things.”

That either-or view is not accurate but it’s understandable. So today we talk about the growing value of short-term credentials, especially those that lead to further learning and earning, and why they are the answer for many people.

But if a person can’t access opportunities for education for whatever reason, it doesn’t matter how great the opportunities are. Sarah notes that this is exactly the quandary that many students are in.

“The real cost to the learner is that they have to put food on the table, and they need wages right now to do that,” she says.

Truly serving students means helping them as individuals, responding with flexible programs to address how life so often happens in educationally inconvenient ways.

Doing that means better help for today’s students, who are more likely than ever before to be working and caring for families. But it also means a system less focused on the idea of just counting credentials—as good a success metric as that seems. We need to vigorously champion credentials of value that advance economic opportunity and career mobility.

This will take a culture change in higher ed, to be sure.

“The finish line is not the diploma,” Sarah says. “The finish line is a living wage—a family-sustaining wage and career mobility.”

This article was originally published in Forbes.

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