The Promise of Tomorrow: Looking Ahead to Equitable Outcomes in our Education and Workforce Systems

Promise of Tomorrow
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As we approach the end of 2022, it’s a natural time to take stock of what we have learned and what trends will carry over into the new year. In considering the current state of our education and workforce systems, I see trends in both that are causing understandable concern among students, families, workers, and many other stakeholders.

For example, the extent of pandemic-related learning loss is becoming clearer, and parents are worried about their students’ learning trajectories. Students finishing high school are questioning the value of a postsecondary education and are worried about college costs. We’re seeing continued college enrollment declines – albeit at a slower rate than earlier in the pandemic. And workers are feeling the squeeze of inflation that is dimming the financial outlook for many, especially those earning low wages.

As concerning as these trends are today, I still believe in the opportunity that tomorrow brings, and am optimistic that in 2023, our collective efforts can help move these trends in the right direction over time. Here are several initiatives the foundation advanced alongside our partners in 2022 that should give us all hope for better days ahead:

In K-12 education, when we think of the sheer magnitude of unfinished learning caused by the pandemic – estimated to cost U.S. students $2 trillion in lifetime earnings – and the results of this year’s National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which showed the biggest drop ever in math scores, it’s clear that the road to academic recovery for our students will be long.

As a foundation, we are encouraged by state-level academic recovery plans that include targeted approaches to address learning losses, such as high-dosage tutoring, extended learning time, and more states and districts embracing digital platforms such as Zearn that provide teachers with real-time data on where students are struggling in math.

We’re continuing to work with state education officials and school leaders on long-term efforts to mitigate learning losses, and earlier this year, we announced a deepening of our work in math education over the next 10 years to support teachers, schools, and districts in improving student math outcomes, especially for Black and Latino students and students from low-income backgrounds who even before the pandemic experienced inequitable access to a variety of math learning supports.

As students progress through the system, we want to see them graduate high school, successfully transition to a postsecondary education, enter the workforce, and have economic mobility and opportunity that leads to financial security. But if you’ve been following the education headlines this year, you know that more high school graduates are opting out of going to college, leading to troubling declines in enrollment.

To understand why these declines are happening and what solutions could be put in place, we partnered with HCM Strategists and EDGE Research this year to ask over 1600 high school graduates why they chose not to go to college.

The results shouldn’t be surprising: 1) students are concerned about college costs, 2) they have questions about the value of a postsecondary education, and 3) many are worried about disrupting their livelihoods to attend college.

One way to lower college costs for many students is by expanding dual enrollment programs that help high school students build momentum toward a postsecondary degree or credential at little or no cost before they graduate. That’s the impetus behind our Accelerate ED initiative, which supports 12 cross-sector teams in states across the country to develop or expand programs that allow students to achieve an associate's degree in an in-demand field with only one additional year of high school at no cost. We look forward to these teams building insight into what conditions are necessary for these programs to grow and fuel the aspirations of more students.

And in our own backyard, through our new Washington State Initiative, we’re similarly focused on supporting students through the critical transition point from high school to college. We’ll be backing locally led efforts to increase the number of Washington State students who enroll in a postsecondary or apprenticeship program right after high school.

Students want assurances that there will be social and economic returns on their investment when they finish college, and we agree. This is one of the reasons why we helped launch the Postsecondary Value Commission and continue to encourage more transparency from higher education institutions about college value and their commitment to providing equitable economic outcomes for all students.

To build on the commission’s work, we supported the launch of the Value Data Collaborative led by the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP). This state-driven initiative is meant to further the field’s understanding of college value and help state and higher education leaders put value metrics into action so that policymakers, institutional leaders, and students and families have a clearer sense of what their return on investment in college will likely yield in terms of earnings and opportunity.

Postsecondary value remains a key priority for us because we agree with the research and the vast majority of adults that achieving a credential or degree after high school is consistently the surest way to get ahead in today’s economy, and it’s one of the most reliable paths to economic mobility and opportunity.

But when I take stock of today’s workforce system, given the current economy, I worry about families living in poverty struggling with inflation’s grip and having to make tough choices due to rising costs for food, clothes, and gas. Even using credit cards or taking out loans comes with higher borrowing costs these days that can have residual impacts on a family’s ability to achieve long-term economic security.

These increasing costs seem compounded during the holidays, especially for the focus population of our Economic Mobility and Opportunity strategy, the 47 million people who face some of the highest barriers to economic security – those individuals earning less than $27,180 annually or $55,500 for a family of four.

And although a postsecondary education is a critical pathway to higher wages, there are 70 million workers today who do not have a bachelor’s degree, and many are not in a position to get one. These workers tend to earn low wages but have the skills to do higher-wage jobs. Part of the problem is that employers have difficulty matching their skills with job opportunities. Women and workers of color are more likely to occupy low-wage jobs than any other group.

We’re working to change these outcomes by partnering across sectors to help our economic systems perform better, especially for our focus population. This year, we announced a three-fold increase to our economic mobility budget, bringing it to $460 million for investments over the next four years.

Our efforts are helping organizations on the ground address the day-to-day needs of people living in poverty, including simplifying the application process for safety net benefits so people can access assistance for critical services like food, health care, and nutrition as they get back on their feet. And we're engaged in initiatives to improve job quality for workers earning low wages and connect workers skilled through alternative routes (STARs) with higher-wage job opportunities.

These are some of the initiatives that continue to give me hope in the face of the challenges and setbacks our education and workforce systems experienced this year.

I remain optimistic about the road ahead and while no one organization can solve these challenges alone, I believe our collective efforts will help support communities toward a vision where race, gender, and socioeconomic status are no longer predictors of academic or economic success.

Because of that, I’m looking ahead to a better tomorrow where equitable outcomes abound, allowing everyone to have agency over their lives, live with dignity, and be valued in their communities. That’s the vision I carry with me into a new year. What’s yours?