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One Issue, Two Coasts—Two Very Different Conversations

October 28, 2019

Maria Flynn President & CEO 

Employers are hungry for talent. And individuals are hungry for opportunities. But far too many people lack the skills they need to thrive in today’s labor market.

Three in four HR managers now report that candidates don’t have the skills for the job. And a troubling survey from General Assembly suggests that seven in 10 employers either have laid off employees or plan to lay people off because they’re implementing new technologies.

Bridging the gap between individuals and the skills they need to compete is core to JFF’s mission. We are tackling this through a “dual transformation” lens: We’re actively working to transform the traditional education and workforce systems while also testing and scaling new models.

It’s an approach that acknowledges both the value and limitations of legacy models and the gap between the promise and potential of new ones. It reflects both the disconnect between outmoded education programs and workforce demands and the complexity of navigating an increasingly complex landscape of faster, cheaper alternatives.

Last week, JFF hosted two conversations—one on each coast—that were emblematic of the ways in which JFF leaders are driving the conversation—and working to tackle shared challenges through very different strategies.

Promise programs are a necessary component of the college access solution for students, but they must be part of a larger design . . .

Madeline Pumariega of Tallahassee Community College in Florida

At the National Press Club in Washington, DC, we convened a gathering of higher education leaders (including community college and state leaders from Virginia, Florida, Tennessee, and New York) to talk about free college. The discussion centered on a JFF brief that outlines four policy design principles for “college promise” programs: advance student success, keep it simple, ensure sustainable funding, and allow for flexibility.

In the words of Madeline Pumariega of Tallahassee Community College in Florida, “Promise programs are a necessary component of the college access solution for students, but they must be part of a larger design that ends with students having better economic mobility.”

The very same day at SOCAP19 in San Francisco (an event focused “on the intersection of money and meaning”), JFF led a panel discussion of entrepreneurs and investors (Guild Education, SVAcademy, Vemo, and Omidyar Network) who are bringing market-based solutions to bear on issues of equity in—and access to—postsecondary education and training.

The panelists discussed two alternative approaches to financing an education: the employer-paid model and a “pay for success” approach called income-share agreements that can both boost access to, and minimize risk in, programs that enable people to build new skills or earn in-demand credentials.

What learners really want is a ticket to the middle class. Income-sharing agreements allow good schools to stand out over schools with a good television ad.

Vemo CEO Tonio DeSorrento

Because income-share agreements reduce upfront costs and link programmatic cost to a graduate’s income, they not only make it easier for adult learners to have the freedom to acquire up-to-date job training, but also impose accountability on training providers that government subsidies may not provide.

“What learners really want is a ticket to the middle class,” Vemo CEO Tonio DeSorrento said. “Income-sharing agreements allow good schools to stand out over schools with a good television ad.”

The discussion of the employer-pay model assessed approaches in which employers provide funding for students to acquire skills that will help them on the job—and in the future. Panel participants Guild Education and SV Academy both offer such programs.

These messages shared at both of those events resonate in an era when educational attainment is our greatest lever for social and economic mobility, and individuals born in the 1980s or later have less than a 50 percent chance of doing better economically than their parents. They should signal the potential for common ground at a time when politics and policy tend to divide us. What’s more, they reflect the necessity of having “both/and” conversations about the full range of potential solutions and the policy alternatives that might hinder—or enable—them.

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