Better Connecting Students to Jobs: A Guide for Policymakers to Encourage Support Integrating Competencies in Postsecondary Education and Training

By Molly M. Scott, Lauren Eyster, Christian Collins, Semhar Gebrekristos, and Yipeng Su – Published May 2020 in Urban InstituteSubscribe to the WFMonitor eNewsletter

From an historical perspective, higher education degrees served as the primary representation for employers to identify the potential of new hires. But that dynamic has changed in today’s world of work.

“Even with technological advances in hiring, employers increasingly admit concern that traditional ways of identifying talent (e.g., using degrees as a signal) are not yielding the best results,” notes the Urban Institute in its “Better Connecting Students to Jobs” report. “The solution may be to shift toward using competencies rather than credentials as ‘currency’ in the labor market,” says the Urban Institute.

The Urban Institute researchers interviewed more than 20 so-called experts who are “testing ways to build competencies into postsecondary education and training systems, including their own academic or training programs, state policymakers, and leaders of national organizations.” The following synopsis features elements from several bulleted lists published in the report that highlighted recommendations that came from colleges, universities, training providers, and federal and state government professionals:

  • track student labor-market outcomes and analyze local job markets;
  • evaluate competency-based approaches and be more transparent about what they are learning and share lessons with external stakeholders, including students, parents, and policymakers;
  • participate in communities of practice and share challenges and lessons learned with staff internally and at other institutions;
  • use existing resources to identify competencies, map them to curricula and credentials, and signal them in the marketplace; and
  • support collaboration between the academic departments and registrars to think about how to develop data systems that help both track and communicate competencies.

Overall, there’s a good amount of valuable information in this relatively short read of only 19 pages. In another section of this report headlined “Signaling the Importance of Employment Outcomes for All Postsecondary Education and Training” Institute researchers listed (below in brief) how “actions to signal the importance of labor-market outcomes for all of our postsecondary education providers can occur at different levels”:

  • The US Department of Education can continue to invest in and expand the coverage and quality of the labor-market outcomes gathered and displayed in the College Scorecard.
  • States could signal the importance of labor-market outcomes by annually reviewing College Scorecard data for their state’s programs and considering the appropriate implications for their legislative funding formulas and priorities.
  • Even absent federal or state action, educational institutions can act on their own, tracking labor-market outcomes for their students and making strategic decisions about their program offerings and investments using these data.

Additional recommendations were provided by the Institute on how to encourage educational institutions, training providers, and federal and state governments to focus on competencies, including:

  • Designing and implementing full competency-based education (CBE) programs or thinking strategically about how to translate what students know into terms that employers value and recognize.
  • State legislation that encourages credential transparency and a broad-based adoption of skills-based hiring approaches.
  • Policymakers could encourage competency-based approaches by introducing this type of system early on in students’ educational experiences in primary and secondary school, embedding it throughout postsecondary education, and leveraging competencies to smooth transitions after high school and between postsecondary institutions.
  • A federal government mandate that seeks to align the language it uses across levels of education. As it stands now, in K–12, the language focuses on “proficiency” and “mastery”; in higher education, on “learning objectives”; and in workforce development and training and hiring, on “competencies.”
  • State policymakers issuing guidance on how college admissions officials should evaluate high school proficiency-based transcripts in the holistic application review process.

The Urban Institute report concludes with a hopeful forward-looking statement, noting how both the student loan crisis and the difficulties businesses face when attempting to identify and hire talented employees have ultimately fostered “innovation and openness among both businesses and education systems.”