Associate’s degree, certificate programs out of step with workforce needs

Some undergraduate students are not earning the postsecondary credentials they need to meet the demands of their local labor markets and thrive in the workforce, says a new report from Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW). More than a quarter (28%) of all middle-skill credentials—defined as postsecondary education and training conferred through sub-baccalaureate certificates and associate’s degrees—do not directly fit the needs of the labor market. As of 2020-21, almost 4,800 middle-skills providers, mainly public community colleges, served students in 565 local markets across the country. Although many of the postsecondary programs they offer are designed to match the skills needed for their local workforce, some credentials have no specific occupational match. 

“Middle-skills workers are vital to the American economy and to their local communities, and we need to do a better job of ensuring that middle-skills providers are meeting the needs of their local labor markets,” Jeff Strohl, lead author and CEW’s director, says in a press release. “Roughly 30% of annual job openings through 2031 will go to workers with an associate’s degree, a certificate, or some college credit but no degree. But the current distribution of certificates and associate’s degrees across programs of study differs significantly from the expected distribution of job openings for middle-skills workers.”

In half of the U.S. local labor markets, at least 50% of all middle-skills credentials would need to be granted in different fields of study to meet the projected labor demand through 2031.

Improving credentials-to-job alignment

The misalignment between these postsecondary credentials and local workforce needs can lead to inequitable access to good jobs for adults from historically underserved communities. Black, Latine, and Indigenous adults are nearly as likely as white adults to hold an associate’s degree but less likely to have a bachelor’s degree. Creating better access to economic opportunities for all means providing more programs that equip students with in-demand skills and pathways to bachelor’s degrees.  

Where students live plays a crucial role in how much access they have to education and training institutions that prepare them for the workforce. Urban areas are more likely to have stronger credential-to-jobs alignment than rural areas, as urban areas typically have more community colleges. On average, there are two middle-skills providers in very rural labor markets compared to an average of 26 providers in very urban areas.

Racial and ethnic disparities in access to middle-skills providers is also leading to inequitable economic pathways. Among working age adults ages 18 to 65, American Indian/Alaska Native adults are the racial/ethnic group most likely to live in areas with no middle-skills education and training providers within driving distance, reflecting public and private underinvestment in those communities. When American Indian/Alaska Native adults have access to at least one local middle-skills provider, they have a significantly higher likelihood (71%) of living in a region with above-median credentials-to-jobs alignment. Seventy-three percent of Black adults, the highest proportion of any racial/ethnic group, live in communities with comparatively strong credentials-to-jobs alignment, while only 58% of Latine adults live in communities with high levels of alignment, a share significantly lower than all other racial/ethnic groups in the report. 

Helping students and local economies

To better serve the needs of students and their communities, the report recommends communities encourage collaboration across colleges and other middle-skills providers.

“If institutions prioritize different programs and fill different niches, then they could really be complementing one another,” Zach Mabel, research professor of education and economics at the CEW, tells Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Other recommendations include improving data practices that help match postsecondary programs with local economies; increasing investment in career counseling; boosting transfer pathways to bachelor’s degree programs; and strengthening pipelines to occupations for students who select programs without an obvious occupational match, such as liberal arts and general studies.

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