Building a New Learning Ecosystem for the Postpandemic Economy

A Blueprint for Recovery

Long before the COVID-19 pandemic upended the global economy, forcing millions of Americans from their schools and workplaces, our most vulnerable citizens were struggling to achieve the economic and social mobility promised by our education system.

Huge numbers of undergraduates—disproportionately from low-income and minority communities—start college but don’t make it to graduation, missing out on the benefits that come with degree completion. Even those who do earn degrees may find themselves ill-prepared for a fast-changing labor market—a disconnect often noted by employers but too seldom recognized by educators.

Worse yet, millions more working adults don’t have a foothold in the postsecondary system at all. Most at risk are low-income, Latino, Black, and Native American learners and workers—those who, for decades, have been disproportionately disadvantaged in our economy and under-represented on our college campuses.

In short, we have failed to prepare enough Americans for “the future of work.” And that future is now upon us.

Strada Education Network’s Public Viewpoint survey, as well as data from education and workforce experts around the country, indicates that even once the pandemic is under control, millions of Americans will be unable to return to the jobs they’ve lost—or in some cases, even to the industries where they have built their careers.

As in past economic downturns, many Americans see education as a crucial tool in their recovery. Increasingly, however, many people are seeking faster and less-expensive pathways to developing skills that will help them get ahead in the labor market. The college path, while often valuable, serves only one-third of Americans, even in the best of times. Our country’s education system will now require much greater capacity—and more varied providers and options—to meet the needs of all learners.

It’s time to do things differently.

Even before the pandemic, Strada Education Network had proposed the creation of a new learning ecosystem that would enable all Americans to transition seamlessly between education and employment throughout their careers, whether they seek traditional college degrees or earn certificates or credentials through non-traditional providers, online programs, or on-the-job training. That fluidity between learning and earning is key, not only to helping individuals and families progress, but to improving workforce development and facilitating long-term economic growth.

Clearly, the pandemic presents enormous challenges to our already strained education and workforce ecosystem. We believe it also presents an opportunity—and a mandate—for state policymakers to collaborate with forward-thinking educators, employers, community organizations and funders—not to replicate the same underperforming system we have now, but to mobilize and create many new pathways in a new learning ecosystem. 

We offer the following blueprint as a guide to reenvisioning how we can transform our postsecondary education and workforce system to address the critical needs of learners and workers, communities, and our economy as we recover from the events of 2020. The six key elements of this blueprint are devised from listening to education consumers—past, current, and prospective students—as well as policymakers, educators, employers, and philanthropic leaders, and from learning about reforms already being advanced that show promise to scale across the country.


The Blueprint

A call to action 

At Strada Education Network, we believe that by convening and mobilizing educators, employers, policymakers, workforce experts, and community supporters, we can leverage real-time data and the best minds in states and communities to identify and fill gaps between in-demand job skills and the education and training that will help job seekers obtain those skills.

The future of work is here. The time to prepare all Americans is now.

To move from vision to action, Strada is interested in partnering with states and communities to plan and build a new learning ecosystem.

Through Recovery Incubator Grants, we will support select states that:

  • Use a common, real-time data system to drive decisions.
    • Explore job trends by industry, sector, region, and state.
    • Identify existing and future employer needs: What skills are in highest demand in your state or region? What skills are currently available in your workforce?
    • Assess current education and training programs: Who can deliver high-demand skills training? Which programs, certificates, or credentials will need to be created or better funded, and which should be eliminated, consolidated, or reimagined?
  • Create short-term, job-aligned training for working adults.
    • Competency-based, skill-based, and career-relevant, with a clear path to employment or advancement.
    • Affordable, to provide wide access, and streamlined, to remove obstacles to enrollment.
    • Flexible, to accommodate work and family schedules.
    • Broad-based, to include two- and four-year degrees as well as short-term, online, and competency-based options from other providers, giving job seekers credit for existing work and life experiences and accelerating their job re-entry or advancement.
  • Deploy career-relevant advising and supports for learner success.
    • Address multifaceted issues, including finances, stress/anxiety, interest assessments, skill development, etc.
    • Ensure learners have all the information necessary to make informed career decisions.
    • Offer a variety of advising methods to suit the needs of diverse learners, including high-touch advising and self-navigation.
    • Make career advising available through multiple sources (e.g. workforce boards, community colleges, and community-based organizations).
    • Support success through academic coaching and mentoring.
  • Engage and incentivize employers.
    • Provide financial incentives to employers who design and deliver training for existing and future workers.
    • Forge educator-employer partnerships to develop hands-on learning, internships, and apprenticeships.
    • Encourage collaboration within industries to build talent pools for entire communities.
    • Promote holistic hiring to create a skilled and diverse workforce, regardless of previous degree requirements.
  • Fund what works.
    • Look beyond traditional colleges and financial aid models to offset costs for learners seeking training from a variety of providers.
    • Decide which education and training programs merit funding and which should be defunded or refocused, based on their success in connecting learners with jobs.
    • Measure success based on education consumers’ satisfaction and employment outcomes, and set a timeline to evaluate return on state investments.
  • Leverage funding, resources, and strategies across all stakeholders.
    • Policymakers
    • Employers (existing and prospective)
    • Educators (traditional and new providers)
    • Learners and workers
    • Community organizations
    • Funding partners

Building a new learning ecosystem that works for all Americans and for our economy will not be easy. It will require a willingness to think differently, to work hard, and to commit time, energy, and resources. Most importantly, it will require intensive collaboration and information sharing, within and among states. But with millions of Americans and the health of our nation’s economy at stake, we cannot wait to act.

We have the blueprint. Let’s start building today. 


Strada Education Network Resources

At Strada Education Network, our mission is to improve lives by forging clearer and more purposeful pathways between education and employment. We marshall research, funding, and guidance to transform America’s education-to-workforce system to better serve learners and earners throughout their careers. We invest in and partner with states, education providers, employers, community organizations, and innovative companies to build an education system that works for all.

To learn more about Strada and our mission-aligned affiliates, please explore the resources below and visit stradaeducation.org.

Report: New Learning Ecosystem
https://www.stradaeducation.org/report/the-new-learning-ecosystem/

Public Viewpoint Survey
https://www.stradaeducation.org/publicviewpoint/

Video: Adult learners
https://www.stradaeducation.org/video/adult-learner-barriers/

Lessons Earned Podcast (interviews with innovators in education and the workforce):
https://www.stradaeducation.org/podcast/

More Research and Insights:

Strada Institute for the Future of Work
https://www.stradaeducation.org/network/institute-for-the-future-of-work/

Strada Center for Education Consumer Insights
https://www.stradainsights.org


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