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New Bipartisan Bill Seeks to Improve Access to Career Training

A newly introduced bipartisan bill would provide funding for states and community colleges to address workforce demands. The Assisting Community Colleges in Educating Skilled Students to Careers Act, or ACCESS to Careers Act, introduced by Sens. Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Todd Young (R-IN), could help build a stronger bridge between college and careers for America’s changing student population.

The U.S. labor market is quickly transforming, due to technological advances and the expanding global economy. Colleges and universities, in turn, are being challenged to adapt academic programs and student services to keep up. This is happening at the same time as schools serve an increasing number of adult learners, who are more likely to require flexible pathways to degree attainment and jobs.

While the majority of students report that they enroll in postsecondary programs hoping it will help them get a good job, neither students nor their prospective employers feel they are being equipped with the necessary skills for the job market. Surveys suggest roughly half of employers believe that colleges and universities need to improve their performance in order to ensure students have the skills and knowledge needed for the workforce. Similarly, only four in 10 students believe that their college education has left them well-prepared for a job.

These attitudes partly reflect the reality that the skills employers need and students want to be successful are evolving. Recognizing the importance of addressing the skills gap, the ACCESS to Careers Act would authorize the secretary of education to provide:

  • Grants to states to develop and expand models that support student success and workforce preparedness, improve data on students’ labor market outcomes, and initiate partnerships with local organizations to create pathways to careers.
  • Grants to community colleges to carry out initiatives that increase the number of students who complete credentials in high-skill, high-wage, or in-demand industry sectors, and boost the capacity of colleges to develop and expand career training programs.

Overall, this increase in support for community colleges aims to expand experiential learning opportunities, ensure students have access to more comprehensive career support, and encourage the development of strategies at the state and institutional level to best meet the skill needs of students and employers.

The bill’s focus on improving student success and strengthening linkages to the labor market is promising to see, especially given less than half of new student borrowers are able to reduce their principal balance within three years of entering repayment. BPC’s Task Force on Higher Education Financing and Student Outcomes, led by former House Education and Labor Committee Chairmen Buck McKeon and George Miller, agreed on the importance of improving student outcomes, particularly in forging new pathways for careers with family-sustaining wages. The task force’s recently released report includes a number of recommendations to build capacity at low-resource institutions such as community colleges, as well as accountability reforms that boost student outcomes and encourage schools to invest in interventions that promote degree completion and job market success.

Supporting success for today’s students requires connecting the classroom to the ever-changing job market. As bipartisan negotiations over reauthorization of the Higher Education Act continue, it is critical for public policy to enable low-resource schools to experiment with different learning models, forge links to labor markets, and develop new opportunities for skills training.

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