White House Project Aims to Connect Low-Income Students With Hard Skills and Good Jobs

White House Project Aims to Connect Low-Income Students With Hard Skills and Good Jobs

The White House is piloting an initiative to allow US employers and training programs to partner with universities to teach students marketable skills, and allow students to receive federal financial aid for such programs, the Atlantic’s Mikhail Zinshteyn explains:

Educational Quality through Innovation Partnerships (EQUIP), as the program is being called, is starting small: Just eight colleges and their non-academic collaborators will take part in the experiment and will educate up to 1,500 students. The program is also not ready to run immediately: The accreditors of the colleges and universities need to approve their plans, meaning they won’t debut until fall or spring of the upcoming school year.

Still, the effort may shed new light on how watchdogs can hold colleges accountable for the workforce success of their students. Unlike current evaluations that measure how well colleges educate their students, EQUIP will measure programs by the jobs students receive and their earnings. Administration officials are framing the trial program as a new tool to address the growing gap in educational attainment and wages in the U.S.

However, Shahien Nasiripour at Bloomberg hears from some experts who question whether the initiative will work:

The Obama administration has recently focused on increasing the nation’s mediocre college graduation rate. Officials will have a “laserlike focus on outcomes” to ensure that students who sign up for experimental programs graduate and get good jobs afterward, [Under Secretary of Education Ted] Mitchell said. The department’s own data suggest it’ll be an uphill climb: Three of the eight colleges selected for the trial have below-average graduation rates. At SUNY Empire State College, for example, just over a quarter of first-time, full-time students graduate with a bachelor’s degree within six years of enrolling. …

“Let me get this straight: They’re going to partner untested for-profit entities with institutions with a proven track record of doing poorly by their students, and the Department of Education is expecting excellent outcomes?” said Alexander Holt, policy analyst at Washington-based think tank New America.

The critics have a point, but given the lack of government support in recent years for vocational programs, it’s great to see the government recognizing that there are plenty of people who do not need to get four-year degrees but who could still provide valuable labor if equipped with the right skills. This could also be a good alternative for low-income workers trying to better equip themselves for the job market, who previously could only afford tuition at large, multi-branch universities with reputations for simply handing out degrees. If these schools provide high-quality instruction, this program could have a really high ROI.

CEB has been participating in another White House program, TechHire, which is aimed at helping fill the country’s tech talent shortage by building a stronger and more diverse pipeline of non-traditional talent. One lesson that has come out of that pro bono work is that it’s not just the degree program (or other training program) that employers prioritize, but also the content of the program: What exactly is being taught, which skills are emphasized, and what tasks do graduates coming out of the program know how to perform? The success of the EQUIP initiative may depend on how well it identifies in-demand skills that do not require a four-year degree, and targets training toward those skills.

This has implications for how the programs are designed. Programs that partner with employers from the beginning will be able to take employers’ concerns and priorities into consideration when they develop the curriculum. One program, Vermont HITEC, actually sends its staff into companies for two weeks to do the jobs its graduates intend to enter, so that they know which skills graduates truly need to have for those roles (as opposed to skills the employer thinks would be nice to have, but which aren’t necessary).

There’s another wrinkle, which is how graduates of nontraditional programs are assessed. A lot of technical roles include interviews where candidates answer computer science theory questions. These questions really only test whether someone has taken the theory courses, but organizations don’t always adapt their recruiting process to avoid eliminating qualified candidates who didn’t go through academic degree programs. This is one issue CEB addresses in our free employer playbook for hiring tech talent, developed as part of our work with TechHire.

The other opportunity this program presents is to improve the employment prospects of low-income Americans. The government is clearly trying to increase the number of skilled workers available in the labor market—especially from underrepresented backgrounds. From the perspective of diversity and inclusion, a program like this helps counter claims (like the one Facebook recently got in trouble for making) that there’s just not enough good, diverse talent out there. That’s no longer an acceptable excuse for poor progress on D&I in the tech sector, and it’s getting even harder for employers to hide behind as the pool of qualified talent expands and diversifies. Given the potential benefits to diversity, it will be interesting to see who takes advantage of this initiative, and how many low-income and minority candidates enroll and get good jobs.