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The Challenge

Postsecondary education and credentials are key to economic mobility for individuals and to our national economic competitiveness.

As the nation shifts from an industrial-based economy to a knowledge-based economy, our global economic competitiveness increasingly depends on an educated and skilled workforce.  Economists project that 63 percent of occupations in 2018 will require at least some postsecondary education, yet only 55 percent of adults today have any education beyond high school. 

Individuals with at least some postsecondary education are more likely to be employed and earn more than their less-educated peers. And more educated workers also are more likely to engage in further education, leading to career advancement and economic mobility.

The increased demand for workers with a postsecondary education cannot be met alone by increasing the educational attainment of youth currently in the educational pipeline. Demographic trends show that most of tomorrow’s workers are in the workforce today, which means we need to invest in helping current workers gain more skills, education and credentials to meet these critical skill needs. 

Too many low-income adults and disadvantaged youth are locked out of the opportunity to earn postsecondary credentials valued by employers and are falling further and further behind.

Millions of low-income adults and youth lack the skills and credentials to qualify for good jobs, and the systems responsible for helping them upgrade their skills—adult education, workforce development, and postsecondary education—are ill-equipped to provide them with the education they need to compete in the workforce.   

Postsecondary educational institutions have few effective models or incentives to serve these populations, who often have basic skills deficits and must juggle work and family obligations while in school.  Too few adult education and workforce training programs are designed to connect students with postsecondary credentials and jobs in their local labor market.  And federal and state financial aid designed to provide students with financial resources to pay for college are often targeted to traditional age students and do not sufficiently meet the needs of lower-income adults and youth.  The results, for students, are poor retention and completion rates.

The problem is not only one of poor design. In addition, public funding for education, training, and support services has not kept up with the growing need for these services, particularly during these economically challenging times.

Overcoming these challenges will require new approaches and policies, new investments, and greater awareness and political will.

The root of many of the problems in our education, training, and support services systems can be found in public policies at the federal, state, and local levels. Policy levers such as funding, legislation, regulations, and accountability systems have tremendous power to shape programs, services, and the targeted populations to be served.

Today, many of these policy levers limit and discourage education, training, and support services for low-skilled adults and disadvantaged youth.

To overcome the educational and economic challenges we face, it is critical to rethink our approaches and strategies, adopt policies that support more effective programs and practices, and adequately invest in building education and training systems that work for low-income adults and disadvantaged youth.  This will require a greater awareness of the problem and solutions as well as enhanced political will to make the necessary changes for the sake of low-income youth and adults and for our economic competitiveness.

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