Free college won’t be enough to prepare Americans for the future of work

Graduates are seen before actor Chadwick Boseman addresses the 150th commencement ceremony at Howard University in Washington, U.S. May 12, 2018. REUTERS/Eric Thayer - RC18328A8330

As the Democratic presidential candidates gather in Westerville, Ohio for the fourth primary debate on Tuesday, they would do well to acknowledge the growing public concern about the “future of work.” As a Midwestern swing state that has an intimate history with displacement and its consequences, Ohio is a fitting place for candidates to offer more robust solutions to issues such as automation and artificial intelligence, which will likely have disproportionate impacts on certain American communities and populations, including places like Westerville.

The candidates have not been completely silent on these issues. Andrew Yang and Pete Buttigieg have elevated the potential problems of digital transformation and its tendency to exacerbate inequality. However, their policy solutions—a universal basic income and enhancing the bargaining power of gig workers, respectively—fail to tackle the mass redeployment of labor from one set of skill demands to another, while minimizing harm and displacement. Other candidates—Julián Castro, Beto O’Rourke, and Tulsi Gabbard—have referenced a general need to invest more in workforce programs and retraining, but the debate about skills and education has, strangely, not gone much deeper than that.

Meanwhile, the most common responses that candidates have given to questions about rising inequality have focused on either “free college” or enhancing college access more broadly. Several have referenced the need to invest more in skills training for the new economy, but the headline-grabbing proposals have come from Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, who emphasize free tuition for public universities and two-year colleges.

Why “free college” and college access proposals are not enough

Many of the candidates’ proposals merely extend the status quo. For more than 30 years, the dominant policy for enhancing economic opportunity in the U.S. has been rooted in a “college-for-all” framework, meaning that the academic pathway to economic opportunity has received the most investment, attention, and status.

Other countries, such as Switzerland or Germany, tend to balance investment between two or three different pathways, including “blended” and “practical” ones. But the U.S. has concentrated public investments solely in classroom-based academic education.

Definitions: Education and training pathways

  • Academic pathway: The traditional academic, classroom-based path from high school to college and university degrees, focused on theoretical learning and analytical skills. This is the main pathway available in the United States.
  • Practical pathway: A path for learning applied skills while working in various fields, such as licensed professions (including health care), the trades, sales, public administration, technology, banking, etc. Competency is typically evaluated through professional exams or practical assessments. In many countries this is called “vocational and professional” education; in the U.S. it is often referred to as “workforce” training.
  • Blended pathway: A path for learning applied occupational and/or technical skills that combines on-the-job training with classroom training, also referred to as the “dual education” model because the individual earns credit for learning at work and in the classroom. Blended pathways can also serve as a bridge to move between practical and academic pathways.
  • Qualification frameworks: A formalized structure for establishing equivalency in learning outcomes and competency levels across different pathways, making it easier for an individual to transfer their qualifications from one pathway to another. They are typically based on the International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED). Examples: the European Qualifications Framework and Switzerland’s National Qualifications Framework.

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the U.S. spends roughly 0.1% of its GDP on active labor market policies (such as job search assistance or job training), which is one-sixth of what Switzerland and Germany spend. Long-term decreases in investment in career and technical education as well as other forms of vocational and professional training have made “college-for-all” practically the only route to economic opportunity in the U.S.


There are at least four major problems with focusing policy solutions only on the academic pathway to opportunity:

The college-for-all strategy isn’t working for most people. Overall, 69% of Americans age 25 and over have less than a bachelors’ degree, according to the Census Bureau. Moreover, community college completion rates are very low, especially among students who require developmental or remedial coursework to become college-ready; in a longitudinal study, 75% did not finish within eight years of enrollment. Clearly, then, the college-for-all strategy isn’t working for most Americans. For millions of talented people, free college tuition would still be unaffordable or impractical due to the high opportunity cost of not working. Moreover, as my colleagues Martha Ross and Natalie Holmes recently found, more than 2.3 million young people in U.S. cities are out of work—neither employed nor in school. Once someone falls off the traditional academic track and is not employed, it’s often very challenging and expensive to get them back into an academic path. Beyond that, many people would just prefer to not go back to school.

The college-for-all approach assumes that skills can only be taught in the classroom. Outside the trades (registered apprenticeships) and licensed professions, there are few well-recognized, work-based equivalents to an academic degree in the U.S. that effectively signal an individual has reached a certain level of competency. Other countries have established well-recognized, meaningful qualifications (i.e., nationally recognized professional exams or applied degrees) in non-academic pathways, using a “qualifications framework” (see definition above) to create equivalencies and crosswalks across pathways. Furthermore, evidence from a study in Colorado suggests that employers feel most skills are better taught on the job than in the classroom. As some have argued, academic degrees are a blunt instrument for identifying talent—if for no other reason than the lack of any other widely accepted way to signal achievement in the U.S.

Focusing on a single college-prep pathway does not actually address the tracking problem. The U.S. used to have a stronger vocational pathway as a counterbalance to college prep. However, vocational education was criticized for “tracking” low-income students and students of color into lower-wage occupations, in large part because schools made early decisions on which pathway to sort students into based on “ability” or previous achievement. Rather than providing a more rigorous alternative to college prep or allowing students to choose their own pathway, we cut back alternative pathways and forced those not on the college track to find their own way into the labor market, often with little guidance. There is now an overwhelming and confusing landscape of more than 315,000 non-academic credentials, such as digital badges, online learning programs, and “bootcamp” certificates. This situation is challenging for individuals and employers to make sense of and presents opportunities for exploitation and disconnection (non-participation in the labor force or school). We can learn some important lessons from Switzerland’s ability to implement an underlying framework for opportunity; an individual there can start in a practical pathway and easily transition into an academic one without completely starting over, and vice versa. In that type of ecosystem, it is possible to envision a paid path to an academic degree, or an academic path to a more applied, practical occupation.

The rapid pace of technological change will require ongoing re-skilling and more agile companies and workers. The future of work is changing the structure, organization, and level of digital integration in the workplace. If the lessons from previous industrial revolutions and Schumpeterian patterns of creative destruction still hold true, some jobs will go away, many will shift in their task orientation, and new jobs will be created. Several researchers have begun to examine the social and political implications of automation and artificial intelligence, such as how they are likely to affect certain types of workers and places disproportionately (e.g., Black and Latino or Hispanic workers, and the complex gender dynamics of the future of work). The current talent development ecosystem, with its emphasis on investing in postsecondary academic pathways (predominantly through community colleges), is not well-suited for helping adults upgrade their skills, quickly transition into new roles, or market themselves. Although applied workforce training programs have grown in two-year postsecondary institutions, they lack a formal pathway or permanent infrastructure to assist workers making career transitions or to help them get credit for prior experience, non-credit coursework, or third-party credential attainment.

In short, a college-for-all approach can never meet the diverse talent development needs of all (or even most) employers and job seekers in an age of extreme technological disruption and digital transformation. While issues such as expanding college access for marginalized populations and the student debt crisis clearly deserve policy attention, they are not the only problems with our talent development ecosystem. It would not be a stretch to say that a displaced manufacturing worker in Ohio might see a “free college” proposal as elitist or irrelevant to their situation. By emphasizing such stances, the 2020 candidates are missing an opportunity to reach voters in America who feel trapped in low-wage jobs, anxious about their financial insecurity, or overwhelmed by the idea that they will have to start over and return to college in order to get a quality job.

The changing nature of work will require the next president to present a bold, sophisticated vision for making our talent development ecosystem more equitable and functional for employers and workers. In developing their visions, candidates can draw useful lessons from internationally tested policy tools, global research, and other promising practices, such as qualification frameworks and dual education systems (referred to above as the blended pathway).

The next post in this series will examine the publicly funded workforce training system in more depth, to shed light on the non-academic workforce training programs we have and why they also fall short in addressing the changing nature of work.