September 24, 2022

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National Student Clearinghouse CEO Rick Torres On Higher Education’s Workforce Wake-Up Call

The National Student Clearinghouse has become a highly respected source of data about student enrollment and progress, verification of academic records and research on higher education trends. Particularly during the pandemic, the Clearinghouse’s frequent enrollment updates provided vital information about the pandemic’s impact on all sectors of higher education.

I recently visited with Clearinghouse CEO Rick Torres to get his thoughts about the challenges faced by higher education as it addresses shrinking enrollments at the same time that employers are facing major workforce education needs. Here are his thoughts on how higher education needs to respond.

Higher education enrollments have been declining for about a decade. How much steeper did the losses become during the last two years, during the worst of the pandemic?

In the years before the pandemic, total undergraduate enrollments were slipping downward at a slow trickle — about 1.5% to 2% per year. That rate nearly doubled, to over 3% in each of the pandemic years, for a combined 6.6% drop from fall 2019 to fall 2021. That’s the largest two-year decline in U.S. higher education in at least the past 50 years. And the freshmen classes fell even more: over 9% fewer freshmen entered higher ed during each of the two pandemic years, compared to the number that started college in fall 2019. That means lower enrollments are baked-in for the coming years, too, as those smaller entering classes progress through their programs.

Where have the enrollment decreases been the steepest, and who has been most affected?

No question that the community college sector was the hardest hit and within the sector the declines in Latinx, Black and native American populations were dramatic, declining 26.6, 21.1 and 19.5 percentage points, respectively. Also, adults aged 18-29 declined nearly 18%, and, in addition, first time college students also declined by 10% in the sector. There is no question that these data show a significant disparate impact on Black, Indigenous, people of color and low-income populations.

The enrollment declines are happening at the same time that employers are finding it difficult to hire the skilled workforce they need. How big a problem has this become?

Some nationwide indicators have revealed that one of the consequential impacts of Covid-19 is an acceleration of an already omnipresent skill shortage in growing high demand areas. Employers are moving aggressively to solve their staffs’ learning needs. While there are national efforts underway to address medium-to-long-term gaps, such as the Learning Employment Record, there is an emergent problem now.

A 2021 National Association of Business Economics survey found that nearly half of American companies reported a shortage of skilled workers. As a result, employers, like Google, IBM and others, are providing the training and credentialing to employees that they would have otherwise received in college.

Increasingly, we see employers trying to address this issue by either paying for their workers to go to college or receive additional training or by offering their own educational programs. How do you evaluate the significance of these two developments?

Non-academic providers of credentials now offer nearly 550,000 badges, course completion certifications, certifications, and apprenticeships. IBM, for example, had awarded 3.7 million credentials as of March 2021, growing at a 61% pace from 2019 to 2020.

There are many middleman training companies partnering with enterprises to help address this skills shortage. There is an expanding set of training providers that are partnering directly in some cases with higher education and in others directly with employers to short cycle the training process and drive skilling opportunities at an accelerated level.

How big a threat to traditional colleges and universities are nonacademic providers of advanced education?

These trends are not just blips on the radar. They reflect an expansion of learning and skills development pathways and should serve as a wake-up call to educational institutions throughout the country. There is the opportunity for a pragmatic convergence of traditional higher education leading to the issuance of workforce credentials. These trends will continue, and you will see workforce credentials embedded into traditional education certificates and degrees.

How should our nation’s colleges and universities respond to the need for curricula that are more skill-based or career-directed?

As I said to college leaders attending the 2022 Community College National Legislative Summit, higher education has an enormous role to play and is well situated to do so if they know how to examine data to better understand the decisions learners are making. Through data, these institutions should take immediate steps to link their curricula to a skill-based workforce and meet the demands of today’s workforce and learners. There are terrific platforms out there to get institutions familiar with this space including Credential Engine and the Open Skills Network.

What specific steps should institutions take to align their programs with workforce needs?

The steps that institutions should consider taking include:

  • Increased collaboration with local, state, and in some cases national industry pipeline development: I recommend institutions become the engine within one’s own community through collaboration that creates pipelines and short-form credentials for traditional age learners and adults. Most importantly, be intentional about it. I elaborated on this topic at the Community College National Legislative Summit.
  • Involvement in state efforts to identify high-demand skill clusters and their institution’s role in developing job pipelines: Institutions must become heavily involved in their state efforts to identify high-demand clusters and understand what is in there. The Indiana Achievement Wallet is an important example between the National Student Clearinghouse, IBM, the State of Indiana, and Western Governors University. It allows employers to understand applicants’ skills better regionally and encourage potential applicants to develop skills in high-demand areas.
  • Work with their governors and state legislators to ensure funds support this surge: You have two sets of funding laws in most states – one for k-12 and one for higher education – that work against the continuum. We need policymakers to start thinking about funding more comprehensively from elementary school and beyond graduate school and see community colleges as an asset in the process. Policymakers should consider investing in a credential-based education infrastructure that better prepares learners for the workforce.
  • Increasing focus on measurement of impact, workforce outcomes to demonstrate ROI’s, including: The Clearinghouse works with more than 3,600 colleges and universities, entities like Achieving the Dream, the National College Attainment Network, the Census Bureau, the IRS, and others with the goal to help learners do better and measure their success. Other important measurements include workforce credentials, non-degree education, for-credit education, and outcomes from a wage gains standpoint. Further, the Clearinghouse offers a free service called Student Tracker, which is the only nationwide source of college enrollment and degree data.

How is the Clearinghouse changing its work to reflect the changing landscape of educational credentials? Are you measuring outcomes other than traditional degrees?

The Clearinghouse, as part of our work with industry credentials, has expanded our trusted and secure data collection and measurement of outcomes. We have moved beyond traditional education to include credentials and skills that people attain through lifelong learning and non-traditional education pathways. The Clearinghouse is helping students and institutions capture and share all of their learning experiences in a secure and verified digital wallet, called Myhub.

By giving students actionable information about how their current academic experience compares to the experience of competitive job candidates, institutions will be able to help them design an effective path from where they are now to where they want to go. Measuring success in noncredit education, workforce development, and credentials will be crucial for students, higher education, and the nation.