We're Not Getting Free Community College. Here's How to Support Workers Equitably | Opinion

Last week, President Biden announced that after negotiations with moderate Democrats, his Build Back Better Act would no longer include 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave and free community college. While this was disappointing, all hope is not lost for workers; the new plan still includes $40 billion to make higher education and training more affordable, including expanded Pell Grants and critical investments in skills-based training, support services, and America's workforce development infrastructure.

These investments will have a sizeable impact, especially if educational institutions and training providers remember workers of color and others who are too often left behind.

America needs this focus urgently. A recent analysis of enrollment data from 40 states found that Black and Latinx students were more likely to wind up in programs oriented toward lower-paying fields like hospitality, whereas white students were more likely to enroll in STEM and IT. Black Americans also remain underrepresented in registered apprenticeship programs, traditionally one of the most proven pathways to good-paying jobs without a college degree. And the pandemic has exacerbated these disparities; according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse, enrollment among Black students in two and four-year colleges fell by 10 percent in the spring of 2021, double the national average.

We can't keep perpetuating the same structures and hoping for better results. Building back better requires ensuring that our education systems deliver on economic opportunity for all. Below are a few insights from the research to help us get there.

First, short-term training needs to connect directly to good jobs. Prior studies show that learn-and-earn programs that link training to good-paying work opportunities—like, for example, apprenticeships—provide high return on investment, whereas the results for "stand-alone" short-term training programs are much more mixed.

If we want to create clear pathways into family-sustaining careers, we need to vet training programs for outcomes like job quality and upward mobility. Policymakers can help by discontinuing short-term programs with questionable labor market value, and interrupting the systems that tend to channel low-income students of color toward such programs.

Second, we need to address the social determinants of working and learning. There are a number of essential conditions that help to determine employment outcomes, including housing, transportation, childcare, and access to healthcare. Research reveals that these factors are especially critical for success on the job for low-income workers of color, who are less likely to have affordable access to support services in their neighborhoods.

job training
Students practice cutting hair on mannequin doll heads at the Paul Mitchell School July 12, 2013 in McLean, Virginia. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

The new Build Back Better framework includes investments in affordable health care and housing, as well as a provision for universal pre-K that will go a long way to supporting working families. But it would be a real game-changer for learners if Congress ever decides to allocate the $62 billion proposed in President Biden's American Families plan to fund child care, emergency aid grants, mental health support, and other wraparound services at community colleges. Few short-term training programs provide these supports to their learners.

Third, job training must focus on economic resiliency. If we direct workers toward training for jobs that they will lose to automation, then we're just kicking the can down the road. We need a sustainable short-term training strategy for the long-term future of work. Research shows that the jobs that are growing fastest will require both technical skills and social skills. To date, too few programs cover both—but these dual capabilities are a requirement for future-ready jobs.

Finally, to hold institutions accountable for success, we need better and more intentional data tracking by race and by socioeconomic status. Too few public and private funders have mandated, collected or shared data on participation in education and training programs by race and class. They also too rarely connect to administrative data sources that would help all stakeholders understand the longer-term outcomes.

President Biden's racial equity Executive Order is a good first step toward using data and evidence to understand the reach of various training programs into different communities. But we need more data and more accountability to move the needle on racial equity in job training.

While higher education and training has served as the ultimate upward social elevator, our current approach isn't lifting up all Americans equally. To change course, we need first to reverse decades of underinvestment in job training; then we also need to expand the types of training we invest in; finally, we need to use proven strategies to advance equity in education, training, and workforce development.

Rachel Lipson is the Director of Harvard University's Project on Workforce, an interdisciplinary initiative focused on policy and research at the intersection of education and labor markets. Dr. Angela Jackson is a Managing Partner at New Profit, where she leads the venture philanthropy organization's investments around the 'future of work' and economic mobility. The complete Project on Workforce at Harvard white paper, which draws on data from New Profit's investments in Economic Mobility, can be found here.

The views in this article are the writers' own.