Work and Education Can Go Hand in Hand

Working adults need a college education system that matches their busy lives and delivers tangible career benefits, writes Louis Soares. A proposed federal program to encourage these steps is now before Congress.

Students at New Hampshire Technical Institute  walk to class  in Concord, NH, January 29, 2009. Many laid-off adults are enrolling in colleges and need a college education system that matches their busy lives and delivers tangible career benefits. (AP/Jim Cole)
Students at New Hampshire Technical Institute walk to class in Concord, NH, January 29, 2009. Many laid-off adults are enrolling in colleges and need a college education system that matches their busy lives and delivers tangible career benefits. (AP/Jim Cole)

Money from the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 is providing some help to the nearly 5 million Americans laid off since the beginning of the Bush recession in December 2007—many of whom are enrolling in college or in search of a fresh start. Yet our economy also creates and destroys 8 million to 9 million jobs every quarter, a “double whammy” in particular for the 62 million Americans without a college degree.

Technology and globalization render working-class jobs especially unstable, a trend clearly evident in our economy going back to the 1980s. The most recent unemployment data for working Americans with only a high school degree tells the tale amid today’s recession.

The costs of no college education

The $2 billion in the Recovery Act assigned to help unemployed workers go to college will be invaluable in helping some of them complete some postsecondary education over the next two years. But it’s important to remember that 62 million working adults will require assistance and support as they seek to gain a college credential, certificate, or degree over their working lives. The U.S. economy needs their enhanced skills more than ever if we are to get our economy back on track, but alas our postsecondary education system is not at all tailored to the working needs of these 62 million.

The key to helping these working adults is to understand that making college more affordable is not enough. For them, going to college requires balancing work and learning with family responsibilities over long periods of time, which in turn requires class times and career programs that the traditional college framework largely fails to deliver. This is where a proposed $2.5 billion Access and Completion Incentive Fund included in President Barack Obama’s fiscal year 2010 budget comes into the picture.

The ACIF is intended to promote an environment of educational innovation on college campuses so that low-income working adults can get the education they need during the times they can attend classes. The method of allocating the funds is still in development. We recommend that the proposed fund use a competitive grants process to invest in pilot programs that break institutional barriers to create a new model that we call The College for Working Adults.

Here’s how to structure the ACIF to encourage innovation and widespread adoption by colleges around the country.

Organize the fund like the National Infrastructure Bank

The National Infrastructure Bank model was designed to help the federal government make strategic investments in infrastructure. The purpose: to enhance the current state-driven funding model with an ability to single out projects that will add to national productivity, security, and quality of life.

The ACIF would benefit from a design that is intended to be scalable at a national level from the very beginning. The fund should set aside resources (or plan to get more) for scaling projects in addition to funding innovation and experimentation. Too often, federal funds are invested in demonstration projects that never leave the pilot stage. We need to change that.

Competitive grants must be open source

The structure of the ACIF grant process should take a page from Proctor & Gamble’s “Connect and Develop” initiative, which opens up its research and development operations to scientists, suppliers, customers, and even competitors all over the world. P&G’s open-source R&D program acknowledges that innovation is a cross-disciplinary and cross-organizational process that encourages cutting-edge product development.

Similarly, the ACIF could structure its granting process to encourage nonprofit groups, businesses, and public agencies to partner with colleges to demonstrate working adults can get past classic college barriers and work-a-day hurdles to earn a college degree. So-called career pathways projects adopted by some states and communities, for example, allow working adults to transition easily between noncredit and for-credit coursework, which reduces the costs of education. So, too, would co-registration between community-based programs and community colleges through co-registration. These are the kinds of new ideas that could emerge from an innovative competitive-grants process.

Transform current business models in postsecondary education

So much great work that goes into helping working Americans be successful happens at the margins of postsecondary institutions. These innovations—such as IvyTech Community College of Indiana’s College for Working Adults, which customizes courses, scheduling, peer learning groups, developmental education, and consistent branding to help working students be successful—are emerging around the country but are difficult to test and expand without more resources. Consequently, these education innovations are relegated to the noncredit course work, making it difficult for working adults to get college credit.

The ACIF should be used to promote projects that change the business model of colleges and universities by awarding points in the grant review process for programs that integrate working adults into the for-credit coursework funded by the per student state subsidy received by these institutions. Further, the process can weight favorably innovations that tie state subsidies to performance—meaning working adults actually completing a course of study and getting a degree. Today, best estimates are that 21 million working adults have tried some postsecondary education but failed to complete. This has to change.

Balance evaluation and innovation

The ACIF will need to evaluate whether its grants are worth it to taxpayers, recognizing that innovation will inevitably involve some failures. To do this, the ACIF should use an open-source decision-making process similar to the way LINUX allows new additions to software code. This peer-to-peer review process would involve a network of researchers, students, program implementers, and college officials who would rate elements for programs for business model innovation, efficacy, and scalability.

In this way, the lessons learned by the ACIF in these initial pilot programs could be applied nationwide very quickly. And once the scale of the ACIF program is proven to work, Congress could then move to change appropriate federal legislation to ensure that the successful project has access to more funds.

Why is it so important to move quickly? Beyond the need to help working adults caught by the current recession, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that almost 7.5 million of the 15 million net new jobs the economy will create by 2016 will require postsecondary education. Jobs requiring postsecondary education will grow by 17 percent—nearly double the rate of 8.8 percent for jobs that will not by 2016. A college credential, certificate, or degree is key to landing good jobs. We need to start innovating now to help working adults be prepared to fill them.

Louis Soares is Director of the Economic Mobility Program at the Center for American Progress. To learn more about the Center’s adult and postsecondary education policy recommendations please see our reports,Lifelong Learning: New Strategies for the Education for Working Adults,” andCollege Ready Students, Student Ready Colleges: An Agenda for Improving Degree Completion in Postsecondary Education,” on the Education and Economy pages of our website.

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Louis Soares


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