Evidence and Ideas for Change How to equip people with the knowledge and skills to thrive in the future
Sarah Rosen Wartell
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I’m thrilled to share with you the Urban Institute’s latest Catalyst brief, in which we spotlight promising solutions taking place nationwide that support a reimagined postsecondary education and training system encompassing colleges, other training and service providers, workforce development systems, and employers. Our experts also show what data and analysis are needed for states, localities, educational institutions, and employers to accelerate these innovative solutions.

As you well know, a college degree has become increasingly important for securing family-sustaining employment, so more adults are going to community and four-year colleges and pursuing other postsecondary credentials. Growing shares of postsecondary students are older, parents, and people of color, all with wide-ranging goals and needs. Though today’s system works well for some students, too many slip through the cracks or don’t receive the preparation required to secure good jobs. And the rising cost of postsecondary education is leaving many struggling with debt.

As Urban looks to the decades ahead, we know that global competition, technological advancements, and the rise of contractual and temporary work will continue to transform how people are employed and the skills they need to succeed. Without a comparable transformation to America’s postsecondary education and training system—as well as changes to how employers invest in their workers and communicate the talent they need—too many people won’t be able to build or refresh their skills. This will limit workers’ opportunities to achieve upward mobility and will likely worsen inequities.

But here at Urban, we see reasons for optimism. We imagine a future postsecondary education and training system in which everyone can acquire the knowledge and skills they need throughout their working lives to succeed in family-sustaining jobs. A system that empowers people to choose from multiple pathways for learning and skill building. And that allocates costs fairly among students, businesses, and governments, realizing for students the benefits of self-fulfillment and income, for firms the benefits of a skilled workforce, and for society the benefits of economic growth and stability.

As part of our Next50 initiative, our experts met with various state, local, postsecondary education, training, and industry leaders who are testing bold solutions toward this vision. We see leaders experimenting with promising strategies that are

  • supporting students on their learning path so they can obtain the degrees and credentials they need
  • providing alternative models of learning and credentialing that can be integrated into people’s busy lives
  • better aligning postsecondary education and training with employers’ priorities and improving employer investments in workers
  • expanding financing options for education and training
  • empowering students to make informed decisions about what to study and how much to spend

Urban also identified five areas where today’s education and training leaders, policymakers, businesses, and philanthropists don’t have enough information to take their strategies further, faster. Our recommendations for filling that knowledge gap:

  • assess lessons learned from successful education and training programs to help providers and institutions build and scale effective strategies
  • evaluate alternative learning models—such as online learning—to advance approaches that work, particularly for traditionally underserved groups
  • document and assess employers’ labor market needs and skill-building approaches to support quality postsecondary education and training
  • develop better measures of students’ returns on investment to inform their decisionmaking and guide public and private investments
  • create the conditions for responsible private financing to supplement public support for postsecondary education and training programs

I’m excited about the new data and analysis that Urban and others can generate to help postsecondary education and training innovators advance their ideas for preparing all people for the future labor market. I’m eager to hear your reactions to this third Catalyst brief in our series of eight, and I look forward to keeping this important conversation going.


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The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Cohosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.


Research Areas Education Workforce
Tags Postsecondary education and training