College & Workforce Readiness

Low-Income Students Need More Than Just a College Degree, Report Says

By Catherine Gewertz — August 03, 2016 2 min read
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Getting low-income students into and through college isn’t enough to position them well for success in the workplace. They need programs that give them strong mentors and real-world work experience, and help them build their science, math, and technology skills, according to a new report.

Released this week by the GE Foundation, “New Dimensions of College and Career Readiness” argues that five strategies are particularly important in making sure that low-income students are ready to thrive in the workplace:

  • Fostering mentorship programs;
  • Offering internships, apprenticeships and jobs;
  • Turning up the focus on technical science skills;
  • Building their skills in science, technology, engineering and math; and
  • Developing “essential skills” such as higher aspirations, teamwork, grit, perseverance, and adaptability.

The white paper arose from a summit in May that the GE Foundation sponsored with College For Every Student and Trinity College Dublin. Education and philanthropy leaders gathered in Essex, N.Y., to talk about strategies for increasing the success of low-income students. The report outlines the discussions there.

One of the key ideas to emerge from the meeting was the importance of ensuring that students have not only access to postsecondary education, but “multiple points of entry” into the workforce, through training programs, internships, jobs, and other such options.

Creating systems that do a better job at offering real-world work experience and emphasizing nuts-and-bolts science skills doesn’t mean downplaying the kinds of learning that have been a mainstay in higher education for generations, however, some summit participants argued.

Dean Garfield, the president and CEO of the Information Technology Industry Council, a trade group, told the participants that it’s not the time for colleges and universities to “ease up on the traditional material they’ve always taught.”

“The foundational skills that have made Middlebury great or Princeton great or Harvard great or any institution great&mash;the analytical skills that are a core part of the curriculum at those institutions are as critical now as they’ve ever been,” Garfield said, according to the white paper. “The key is for them to be supplemented by the additional competencies that are necessary to compete in today’s and tomorrow’s world.”

At the same time, the postsecondary education system has to be able to provide training for young people who will fill a key niche in the marketplace: the middle-skill jobs that don’t require bachelor’s degrees. That case was argued by Robert Schwartz, a senior research fellow at Harvard, and co-author of the 2011 report that sparked controversy by arguing that perhaps not all students should aim for four-year colleges.

So it’s not an either/or; It’s a both/and scenario. Helping students aim high and secure some kind of postsecondary education or training, but also making sure that they have the nitty-gritty work experience, and specific skill sets, to thrive once they’re working.

For more stories about the skills students need for success in college and the workplace, see:

A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.