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What’s More Important to Students and Employers: Skills or Credentials?

The line between work and education is increasingly blurred, according to education leaders, government officials, and other key stakeholders.

At a packed event on Thursday, the discussion centered on how much value a traditional college degree still holds compared to career-applicable skills—in the minds of both younger students and employers.

The Reagan Institute Summit on Education, or RISE, brought leaders and stakeholders to Washington to address pressing issues and evaluate the state of U.S. education on Wednesday and Thursday. Hosted by the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute, this year’s theme was Empower Every Learner.

The packed panel, Skills vs. Knowledge in an Era of Career-Connected Learning, was moderated by Nirvi Shah of The Hechinger Report. She began the discussion by acknowledging growing skepticism about higher education among members of Generation Z (those born during the late 1990s and early 2000s) and a rising interest in opportunities like apprenticeships and work experience.

“There’s long been the conflict between the pursuit of a college degree and career education,” Shah said.

Panelists emphasized the need for an intersection of the two traditionally separate paths. The speakers discussed the innovations they’ve accomplished in their respective careers, and their hopes for future development of education with a focus on job readiness.

Responding to a growing demand for skilled workers

Employers are increasingly seeking workers with applicable skills, regardless of higher education status, said panelist Maria Flynn, the president and CEO of Jobs for the Future, a national nonprofit working to achieve equitable economic advancement through transformation within the U.S. education and workforce systems. Flynn said education leaders must respond to these trends to better prepare students for successful futures.

At the same time, college graduates are not finding employment in their area of study as easily as previous generations had in the past.

“These pathways from college to career are terribly broken,” said another panelist, former Massachusetts governor Jane Swift, a Republican.

Amy Loyd, the assistant secretary for the office of career, technical, and adult education at the U.S. Department of Education, agreed, adding that developments in career-connected education and work-based learning support many students previously underserved by their formal education. She emphasized the importance of choice and giving students multiple pathways to post-education employment.

“We need to create more opportunities that are reverse-engineered from where our labor market is, from what our employer needs, from what our states and our nation need to really grow our economy, and connect that to student purpose and meaningful learning inside and outside of the classroom,” Loyd said.

Loyd also noted the opportunity for American education to adapt to the changing needs of students.

“This is not a four-year-college or bust nation,” she said, noting that this change can start at the secondary education level.

Innovation begins at the K-12 level

Education officials have made significant changes to school systems to prepare students for both careers after high school and higher education.

Angélica Infante-Green, Rhode Island’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education, discussed her and other education officials’ efforts to “change what it [means] to go to high school in Rhode Island.”

Infante-Green touched on several developments the state has made. Now, for instance, high school graduates are prepared to attend any local higher education institution, which was previously not the case.

Perhaps most significantly, the state has implemented robust career and technical education programs in all high schools and additional institutions to help students earn an industry credential before they graduate from high school. Rhode Island education officials also partnered with business leaders lacking a skilled workforce to establish paid apprenticeships for high school juniors as part of this initiative.

“This is a different world, and our kids have to be part of that world,” Infante-Green said.

Instead of choosing between Career and Technical Education (also known as CTE) and college, Infante-Green said, students now have access to both. She has also worked toward including students of color in these programs, as they were previously pushed out of the old model of highly sought-after classes.

“CTE is for everyone,” she said.

Panelists’ hopes for the future

Speakers from different RISE events throughout the summit shared their hopes for the future of education, and the panelists discussing career-connected learning were no exception.

“Education should be opportunity, should live up to the promise of economic and social mobility,” the Education Department’s Loyd told the audience.

Loyd emphasized the connection between education, workforce development, and economic development.

“It takes a village to build a pathway and it takes both business and industry and our education system to come together to co-own the responsibility of ensuring that our workforce has the skills that they need,” she said.

Swift, the former governor, would like for businesses within the private sector to partner with educational institutions to provide work experience. She also hopes that within the higher education pathway, career-preparation services improve to fit the real needs of students and industry leaders.

Flynn of Jobs for the Future explained the need for more rapid improvement than incremental change and tweaks to existing education systems.

“On both the public-sector side and the private-sector side, we need bigger swings.”

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