How State Policy Can Help People Rebound and Advance

Postsecondary & Workforce

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This is the second post in a four-part series that highlights state policies to support an equitable economic recovery. This series is a collaborative effort with Erica Cuevas, associate director for JFF’s state and federal policy and advocacy team.

Updated: Oct. 5

An equitable economic recovery supports people who have been historically underserved and left out of opportunity, including people of color, individuals from low-income backgrounds and people with disabilities in the workforce. It also supports workers and learners who have been hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure they have the knowledge, tools and experiences needed for career entry or reentry and advancement.

State leaders can, in part, help people rebound and advance by expanding upskilling and reskilling efforts that give individuals currently unemployed and underemployed the skills in-demand occupations require and that prove to be most valuable in the post-pandemic labor market. They can also adopt a statewide framework for rapid skill-building and short-term credential attainment to ensure quality, or update state financial aid systems to better target people working in low-wage frontline jobs and in industries deemed to be a part of the nation’s critical infrastructure.

Recent state legislative proposals have already been trending in this direction. Since March of 2020, states have introduced at least 185 bills that provide financial support for individuals to pursue higher education and training. Many states are making a concerted effort to target support for those hit hardest by the pandemic by providing financial support for people to access higher education programs and short-term credentials. For example:

      • Michigan enacted legislation in 2020 that created the Michigan Reconnect Grant Program to provide scholarships and grants to Michigan residents to pursue an associate’s degree or industry-recognized certificate or credential. In addition to the reconnect program, Gov. Whitmer launched the Futures for Frontliners program to offer frontline workers a tuition-free path to community college.
      • Utah enacted legislation in 2020 directing financial grants to institutions of higher education to offer short-term programs for people that were furloughed, laid off, dislocated, underserved or otherwise affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
      • New Jersey enacted legislation in 2021 to permanently establish the Community College Opportunity Grant Program, which allows qualified students to attend any New Jersey community college without paying tuition or fees.

As states develop and build upskilling and reskilling pathways, it will be critical for leaders to consider how to equip individuals with the information and data needed to make informed decisions about which degree and nondegree credential programs to pursue. A recent report from Credential Engine identified nearly one million postsecondary and secondary credentials available in the United States and nearly 500,000 of them are nondegree credential programs.

To support students and workers, state policymakers can develop universal career navigation services that are tech-enabled, regionally accessible, place-based, advancement driven, and available in real time to make informed decisions about employment and education pathways.

Colorado enacted legislation in 2020 that has made headway providing students, jobs seekers and service providers with timely information. Through a multi-agency partnership, the legislation directs the Colorado Workforce Council to create a free online platform to assist Coloradans in making career and education planning decisions. As a result, Colorado Workforce Council formed the My Colorado Journey platform, which offers a range of tools and timely resources to guide job searches and career planning efforts, locate education and training offerings, and access financial aid and community services.

To create and maintain My Colorado Journey, the Colorado Workforce Development Council partners with the Colorado departments of Higher Education, Labor and Employment, and Human Services. The tool brings together fragmented data systems, services and programs to create a unified and personalized experience for registered users. On the platform, users can walk through specific action steps to achieve their job, career and educational goals.

We highlighted just a few of the areas states can focus on to help people during this time of crisis. Additional consideration can be placed on strategies that provide people with strong financial and social supports and innovative financing options for higher education and training. To learn more about the strategies mentioned in this post and to track related state policy activity, visit JFF’s State Policy Road Map for an Equitable Economic Recovery and ECS’ State Education Policy Watch List.

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Senior Policy Analyst at Education Commission of the States | tkeily@ecs.org

As a senior policy analyst, Tom contributes to the work of the policy team on issues across the education spectrum. Prior to joining Education Commission of the States, Tom taught middle school in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Tom is dedicated to providing state policymakers with quality research that supports them in making a positive impact on students' lives.

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