Black, Hispanic, and Native American/Indigenous communities experienced disproportionate health impacts and job losses from the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the economic recovery and tight labor market has led to job gains for all workers, these communities still experience higher rates of unemployment compared to white workers.
Short-term, nondegree occupational credentials offer a flexible and cost-efficient option for workers looking to upgrade their skills and advance in the labor market all while juggling home and other obligations. However, research thus far points to mixed evidence on the efficacy of these credentials for raising wages, especially for Black and Latinx adults compared to their white peers.
A recent set of studies conducted by the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University highlights ways that states and community colleges can improve credential attainment and workforce outcomes for adult learners in Black, Latinx/Hispanic, and Native/Indigenous communities. The suggested strategies combine stackable credentials in career pathways, social supports and campus environments in which students from all backgrounds feel supported from orientation through graduation, and culturally relevant and engaging curricula.
- Stackable credentials allow students to earn short-term credentials while also working toward completing their degrees. The first study echoes other calls to align short-term credentials with degree programs, making it easier for students to transfer credits and “stack” their credentials. Stacking offers learners the flexibility to work up to a higher-level degree or to learn new specializations at their own pace. Transfer and articulation systems are best implemented at the state level to ensure uniformity and efficiency. Evidence from Ohio’s statewide stackable credentials initiative, for example, is promising, but key equity gaps persist. Despite being overrepresented in short-term credential programs, Black and adult learners are less likely to stack. To maximize this strategy’s success for minority and adult students, policymakers and college leaders need better data on which students choose high-quality programs, how well they perform, whether they pursue further education, and their labor market outcomes.
- Support services allow students to overcome nonacademic challenges such as food or housing insecurity or unmet child care needs that could interfere with their ability to complete their degree or other credential.A growing body of research shows that students are more successful when they receive academic and nonacademic support. These services are particularly important for the success of Black, Hispanic, Native American, and adult students, who are more likely to face challenges with part-time work, developmental education placements, and child care. The authors highlight two evidence-based strategies that many community colleges are implementing as they redesign advising: bundling and sequencing.
A bundled and sequenced approach to advising integrates the delivery of academic and nonacademic supports throughout each stage of the student’s postsecondary journey. To ease the delivery of bundled services, it is best practice to locate support offices in the same space on campus and to assign staff to students. These changes improve the consistency and accessibility of supports, making uptake more likely. Importantly, the college should not forget to engage students’ families and communities as they are another critical point of support.
- To address discrimination, bias, and marginalization experienced by Black, Latinx/Hispanic, and Native/Indigenous students, community colleges can pursue culturally sustaining and relevant supports and instruction. One promising way to engage students is through cohort- and project-based learning that emphasizes culturally relevant classroom examples. The authors draw from Samuel Museus’s Culturally Engaging College Environments framework and conversations with college leaders to show how such offerings can mitigate the obstacles that historically underrepresented students face. For example, students in the Umoja learning communities at Bakersfield College show better academic performance and retention than a statistically equivalent peer group.
Policy and practice implications
Based on the study’s findings, WorkRise identifies the following implications for policy and practice.
- Policymakers can influence the credential attainment of adult students by simplifying the process for stacking certificates, certifications, degrees, and other credentials at different institutions. Additionally, they can promote equitable access to high-quality programs through increased financial support for students and data systems. Investments like these will help achieve policy priorities to bolster the local economy and to improve the economic mobility of historically underserved populations.
- Institutions seeking to better serve their diverse student populations should consider the above suggestions, starting with a plan to identify, measure, and eliminate inequities. Once goals are established and staff at all levels are committed to the vision, plans to transform advising, curricula, and campus culture can be implemented. It is important to note that any institutional equity initiative ought to provide resources for staff professional development in bias trainings and cultural competency. Additionally, the institution must continually review student experiences and outcomes to identify areas where change is needed, with a willingness to adapt.