Education Meets Economic Mobility at the State House

Tuesday, September 5, 2023
Kanler Cumbass

Co-Authored by Oreyane Tate

In 2023, the connection between education and economic mobility could not be more evident. Simply put: a high school diploma or its equivalent is no longer enough to compete in our evolving economy. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics project little or even negative job growth for occupations requiring a high school diploma or less post-pandemic. Further, research consistently tells us for learners to achieve economic mobility, longer-term, workforce aligned programs are their best bet

Pursuing a postsecondary credential of value could not be more timely or important for learners and their families. State lawmakers can play a role in creating the conditions for educational opportunity and workforce development. At Education Strategy Group, we have tracked legislation across many states to identify enacted bills further linking education, work, and economic mobility. Four major trends emerged from this past legislative cycle: 

1. States are incentivizing the uptake of credentials of value. For learners to achieve economic mobility, they must earn high-quality credentials that lead to good jobs with family-sustaining wages. States can incentivize the uptake of credentials of value tied to larger workforce development strategies to increase competitiveness and decrease unemployment. 

This past legislative session, Texas House Bill 8 was passed and enacted to improve the accessibility and affordability of the state’s postsecondary education system. In addition to sizable investments in dual enrollment and a systematic shift in the state’s funding model for community colleges, the bill calls upon higher education leaders to make pathways to credentials of value and high-demand jobs more transparent to students and their families. Institutions will be fiscally rewarded for helping more learners cross the finish line and earn credentials of value. Moreover, the state passed House Bill 1755, creating the Lone Star Workforce of the Future Fund to train workers to fill high-demand jobs in Texas. Increasing affordability, improving transparency, and ensuring timely completion are crucial drivers to assist more learners in obtaining credentials of value, competing in our workforce, pursuing additional education, and achieving economic mobility.

2. States are investing in work-based learning and navigational support to help learners explore their postsecondary and career options earlier. A learner’s journey to college and career starts at a young age, and our education system is responsible for helping students become college and career ready. Experiential learning is key to helping students explore their interests and understand  their options and to approach education and career with concrete goals. States can invest in and support learners through high-quality work-based learning experiences that serve as a catalyst to advance equity and opportunity

Colorado’s House Bill 1212 establishes the Apprenticeship Navigator Pilot Program to better serve learners as they consider various postsecondary and career paths. The goal of this two-year pilot program is to increase awareness among graduating high school students about registered apprenticeship opportunities and encourage participation among individuals between the ages of 18 and 26. To achieve these goals, apprenticeship navigators will be assigned to rural and non-rural school districts, where they will be responsible for holding informational events for parents and students. This investment by the state provides crucial support to prevent students from pursuing low-wage jobs or low labor market value credentials. 

Similarly, Rhode Island passed Senate Bill 0178 to create the Apprenticeship Pathways to Earning a Bachelor’s Degree Act. It will enable learners to earn a bachelor’s degree at public higher education institutions throughout the state by earning credits through apprenticeships. This bill calls upon higher education leaders to recognize students’ hard work by awarding course credit for on-the-job training.  This strategy will reduce a learner’s time to earn a degree while simultaneously allowing them to earn wages. 

3. States are doubling down on degree attainment by expanding access to dual enrollment. Research consistently underscores the significance of dual enrollment participation in promoting college access and sustaining enrollment for institutions. States that expand access to early postsecondary opportunities can facilitate smoother transitions between K-12 and higher education. 

West Virginia’s House Bill 2005 will establish a four-year dual enrollment pilot program that will place high school students on an individualized path to earn college credit toward a certificate or degree. Students will enroll in courses directly aligned with the state’s workforce needs, including in health care, STEM, education, and construction. What’s more, appropriated funds will be used to pay for the cost of tuition and fees for eligible students at participating institutions. This pilot program will widen access and mitigate the financial barrier that often prevents students from obtaining the postsecondary credentials required for in-demand, high-paying jobs. 

4. States are awarding grant aid for adults to return to the classroom. With an enrollment cliff among traditional-aged learners on the horizon, states are turning their attention to supporting adult learners interested in pursuing postsecondary education and training. Sizeable investments in grant aid to offset costs for adult learners is a strategy states can pursue to ensure learners are entering the pipeline toward good jobs in high-demand industries.

The ReEngage Alabama Grant Program, created by Senate Bill 175, forges a new pathway for adult learners in the state to access postsecondary education. Individuals who are 25 and older with some college credit can be awarded a maximum of $3,000 per academic semester to finish their first associate or bachelor’s degree at four-year institutions; the maximum for individuals at two-year institutions is $1,500. Adult learners are eligible if enrolled in a program aligned with high-demand occupations identified by the state. As employers increasingly demand a skilled and diverse workforce, adult learners in Alabama will be able to acquire the skills and competencies to further compete in the state’s economy. 

For higher education to be an engine of opportunity, we need policies and practices that seek to close postsecondary attainment gaps and align education with workforce needs. Furthermore, state policy can promote equitable economic opportunity for learners from underrepresented marginalized backgrounds. Now more than ever, it is vitally important for states to ensure their education systems are preparing a diverse workforce with the knowledge and skills to support a competitive, robust, and rapidly-shifting economy.