OpinionPandemic  

Commentary: As COVID Changes the Workforce, Students Need to Know How a Degree or Credential Will Shape Their Future. New Partnership Can Help

By Jennifer Bell-Ellwanger and Scott Cheney | July 8, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic is turning the economy upside down, and students are wondering just where they’ll fit into the workforce of the future. For many, it seems as if the old rules no longer apply — there’s no certainty that the economy of a year or two from now will resemble the one these students were expecting.

They can sense it. Year-over-year submissions to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) are down sharply since February, including among students who would be returning to college. The drop-off is most severe among students from the lowest-income backgrounds. This trend toward an impending decline in college enrollment in the fall suggests a crisis of confidence among many students that traditional education pathways will pay off in the post-pandemic economy.

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Amid all this uncertainty and anxiety, how are young people supposed to make education and career decisions for the future? Unfortunately, there’s no clear answer at the moment. Whether it’s a two- or four-year college degree, a certificate or another type of training or credential, there’s little transparency around what programs will give them the skills and experience they will need to build a successful career in tomorrow’s workforce.

That’s why Credential Engine, the Data Quality Campaign and five other leading national policy organizations have created a State Policy Partnership to promote credential transparency in all states — including information that ensures that prospective students are aware of their options, understand how credentials align with one another, and can access data on outcomes for other students who have pursued these credentials. The initiative is intended to empower everyone to make more informed decisions about credentials, the skills they should expect to learn by pursuing them and their value. It’s crucial that students and their families have all the information they need before making life-altering decisions like choosing the degree, certification or other credential program on which to spend their time and money.

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Last year, a report revealed that there are nearly 740,000 unique credentials in the U.S., including diplomas, certificates, certifications, licenses and degrees of all types and levels. Without the data to show what these credentials are really worth in the workforce, students and families are left to make decisions about education in the dark.

State leaders will be key in ensuring that the public has information about options. Before the pandemic struck, legislative activity signaled that state leaders want to put information in students’ hands. Lawmakers in eight states — Arizona, Florida, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Oklahoma and West Virginia — introduced versions of the Right to Know Act, which would give students information about potential pathways after their K-12 education and real workforce outcomes. This legislation aims to ensure that students have access to these crucial data while they are in high school so they are empowered to make decisions about their future.

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Everyone approaching a degree or certificate program deserves to know how its students fare after graduation. Does the program really confer the skills and knowledge that students will need in their career? Are graduates able to move seamlessly into related jobs? What do the average wages look like? The sad truth is that too many credential programs cost students money and time while leaving them with credentials that don’t live up to their promise — of a career, of job advancement or of a family-supporting wage. Young people and their families must have information about the real value of these credentials to make clear-eyed decisions.

Transparent information gives individuals the opportunity to chart their own path, knowing what the potential outcomes will be. While the economy may be changing, it’s critically important to understand how many students have successfully pursued careers in a given field and what they earned pre-COVID in order to gauge how useful — and valued — that credential or certificate will be in the workforce.

Jennifer Bell-Ellwanger is president and CEO of the Data Quality Campaign. Scott Cheney is executive director of Credential Engine. 

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