The systems that prepare people to access quality employment are increasingly fractured, with many avenues lacking the resources they need and failing to deliver the results they should. For example, despite the fact that over 10 million Americans are unemployed, employers today often struggle to find qualified workers for new positions. This broken system, exacerbated by slow economic growth, disproportionately impacts low-income individuals, who already lack access to the necessary training for quality, in-demand jobs.
To be successful in today’s economy, a high school diploma is often no longer sufficient; accessing quality jobs with decent wages requires additional credentials and training. Fortunately, promising efforts across the country are seeking to address the issue of access to post-secondary education. In recent weeks, Mississippi, Oregon, and Tennessee have proposed subsidizing tuition to community and technical colleges, connecting graduating high school seniors to essential training that can better prepare them for the workforce. As affordability is a persistent barrier to continuing one’s education, public tuition subsidies for community college is one of many ways that the public sector is actively seeking to expand access to this system. By directing more public dollars towards increasing community college attendance, the public sector is also elevating their important role in the broader dialogue about education and employment.
These efforts may also serve as an example of a shift towards more creative and effective uses of public resources to increase access to economic opportunity. For example, Tennessee is taking an existing revenue stream – from the purchase of state lottery tickets - and redirecting those resources towards a pathway to opportunity for residents otherwise unable to access higher education. Creatively leveraging resources towards the needs of low-income people is a key feature of a modern, more innovative public sector, and these efforts are a promising step in that direction. That said, for this to truly be a useful redirection of government resources, these efforts will need to produce not just better outputs (e.g. higher attendance rates at community colleges), but in fact better outcomes (more jobs, higher wages, etc.).
While we’re excited about the potential in these examples to improve pathways to opportunity for low-income people, we’re clear that making community college universally accessible is not a silver bullet for repairing the fractured education and employment system; on its own, universal access to community college will not produce the outcomes needed for low-income people in this country. Instead, community colleges will only better prepare individuals for employment when courses and credential offerings are aligned with the actual demands of regional employers. The next frontier of these efforts will thus be to ensure alignment between education, workforce, and job growth efforts. Repairing the broken pipeline to jobs requires both important patches - like universal access to community college - as well as consideration of how patches all fit together to better prepare low-income people to access in-demand jobs.
We look forward to watching these public sector initiatives in Mississippi, Oregon, and Tennessee, and to learning about how they are fitting into broader efforts towards greater educational attainment, employment, and opportunity for all residents.