Key Education Transitions

How We All Can Profit From Improving College, Career Success for Low-Income Students

Bill HansenBy William D. Hansen, President and CEO, USA Funds

Even as millions of America’s under-educated young people are desperate to find work, the nation’s employers could be scrambling to find qualified candidates to fill millions of jobs in the next five years.

Attendees at the National Urban League Summit
Policymakers, educators, students, and business and community leaders gather for two-day National Higher Education Summit.

To meet that challenge, the National Urban League and USA Funds® last week gathered educators, business leaders, students, government officials and community leaders in Washington for a two-day national summit. Those in attendance confronted the issues of higher education affordability, completion, and outcomes that prepare students for quality employment in occupations in demand in the workforce. Participants included:

  • The U.S. undersecretary of education.
  • Two current governors and one former governor.
  • Five mayors.
  • Two university presidents and two chancellors.
  • Four current or former students.
  • Dozens of others who share an interest in improving opportunities for students of color, those from lower-income households, and those who are the first in their family to pursue postsecondary education.
National Urban League Summit student panel
Current and former students share higher education experiences, challenges during National Higher Education Summit.

The monetary value of a college degree is well-documented. Study after study has shown college graduates can expect anywhere from a half-million to a million dollars more over a career than those without a degree. Recently released census data show the median weekly salary for a college graduate is almost twice that of someone holding only a high school diploma. The unemployment rate for college graduates is well below the nation’s median, and much lower than unemployment rates for high school graduates and high school dropouts.

It’s not only income and employment opportunities that improve along with education. Voting rates, volunteerism, intellectual curiosity and tolerance for other viewpoints also correspond to educational level. More education means better health, and the more educated someone is, the more physically active they are.

But the nation’s poor and minorities largely fail to reap these rewards because our higher education system is failing them. The system leaves the most vulnerable communities behind, economically and in terms of their civic engagement, health and the ability to navigate society successfully.

College completion rates for students of color are abysmal: Barely 40 percent of black students and barely half of Hispanic students complete four-year degree programs within six years of enrollment, compared with more than 60 percent of white students. Despite the investment of hundreds of billions of dollars in federal financial aid, the yawning education attainment gap between haves and have nots continues to widen.

At the same time, if they were educated and trained for the jobs employers will need to fill in the coming years, these students could help bridge the skills gap that threatens our nation’s continued economic prosperity. The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce projects employers will fail to find qualified candidates with the postsecondary credentials required for an estimated 5 million jobs by 2020.

With forward-thinking cooperation between government, business and educators, the 5-6 million young people ages 16-24 who are neither in school nor employed and the additional untold number of at-risk students can be transformed from a social liability into an asset that can help solve the nation’s skills gap. But each of the key stakeholder groups will have to move in a new direction to achieve that result:

  • Young people who are not in school and not working need to “get in the game” by getting work experience, so they taste the world of work, understand the skills needed to get and hold a job, and can pursue the education they need.
  • Employers must think beyond just-in-time hiring and understand this population represents an untapped pipeline of future talent.
  • Government leaders should support innovative, results-driven, more affordable ways of delivering postsecondary education and training to this population so they are prepared for quality employment in jobs that are in demand in the workforce.
  • Educators need to commit to serving this population by meeting these young people where they are and taking them to where employers need them to be.

With our partner for the event, the National Urban League, we hope to use the results of this national summit to launch a more purposeful path for these underserved populations to and through postsecondary education and on to rewarding careers and fulfilling lives.

Photos courtesy National Urban League.

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