More of What We Need

Promote Student Success Beyond Completion in Every State

By Kristin D. Hultquist and Harrison Keller    //    Volume 32,  Number 2   //    March/April 2024

  • A new focus on success beyond completion for states: The integration of higher education, workforce development, and economic development is a new core competency colleges and universities, and their governing boards must master.
  • Quantity and quality matter: Economic competitiveness, among states and with other nations, will depend on not only the quantity but also the quality of jobs attracted and created.
  • Texas leads the way: A comprehensive approach to goal setting, research and development, community college finance, college and career advising, transfer policy, and integration of educational and workforce data supports the state’s ability to compete in an innovation economy.
  • Data-informed policy to gauge success: State and institutional leaders need to examine data about graduates’ earnings and costs to determine if typical students would be financially better off after earning a given credential, even accounting for their opportunity costs.

This is a pivotal moment for governing boards of public and private higher education institutions. Public confidence in the value of a degree, in the job market, and in turn in the nation’s economic stability is waning.1 At the same time, the world, the U.S. economy, and the pace of innovation continue to accelerate in directions that require more skills, education, and postsecondary credentials than ever before. The cynicism about the potential returns to a college education is fueled by concerns about affordability, time to degree, and return on investment.2 All of these are tied to the perception that colleges may not be able to provide learners with the skills they need to land a good job, as many learners seek the guarantee of a job to prove that going to college was a valuable investment of their time and money.3 State leaders across the country want to fuse economic and workforce development with higher education, resulting in a new focus on success beyond completion on college campuses. We summarize here how state policy is changing to help institutions keep pace and ensure that the United States stays competitive throughout the 21st century.

The Innovation Economy and Economic Mobility as Catalysts for Fusing Higher Education, Workforce Development, and Economic Development

Nearly every state has adopted measurable, date-specific goals for increasing educational attainment tied to projected workforce needs. Economic competitiveness, both among states and with other nations, depends on not only the quantity but also the quality of jobs attracted and created. Governors and state and regional economic developers are hungry to create and attract good-quality jobs because such jobs raise wages and productivity and beget other jobs.

The growth of the innovation economy renders nearly obsolete the traditional silos among higher education, workforce development, and economic development. Skills, knowledge, and ability to innovate increasingly drive economic growth and wealth generation in the United States. For example, economist Enrico Moretti’s analysis of 11 million workers in 320 metropolitan areas shows that for each new high-tech job, five additional jobs are created outside of high tech.4 Moretti writes, “In the end, it does not matter whether American workers make something physical, like more efficient lithium batteries for electric cars, or something immaterial, like a better search engine. What really matters is that American workers produce goods or services that are unique and not easily reproduced. This is the only way to generate jobs that pay well in the face of stiff global competition.”5

From life sciences to nanotechnology to information technology, people are the essential input in the U.S. innovation economy. The ability to innovate requires creativity and learning beyond repeatable tasks that are more easily automated. Jobs in the innovation economy are “traded sector” jobs that produce goods and services that are sold mostly outside of a region; the non-traded sector produces goods and services that are consumed largely within a region. Traded sector jobs have a multiplier effect because of the power of technology to improve productivity rapidly and significantly and because of the number of non-traded jobs they beget. Jobs in the innovation economy grow disproportionately faster than jobs in other sectors; they comprise about 10 percent of all U.S. jobs, but “our prosperity depends primarily on the traded sector,” says Moretti.6

A clear example of state leaders connecting economic development, workforce development, and higher education emerged in 2017 when Amazon invited bids to establish its next North American headquarters, which would create 50,000 full-time jobs in the traded sector.7 More than 200 bids were received; a site in Virginia won. Three of the eight criteria Amazon used in its site selection process referred to aspects of human talent and talent retention. Corporate location teams assembled across economic and workforce development agencies were required to respond in their proposals to criteria such as “a highly educated labor pool is critical, and a strong university system is required.”

Historically, institutional autonomy has been a core value of higher education. Virginia’s winning bid for the Amazon headquarters emphasized that collaboration is essential for innovation and for ensuring value and relevance. The package of state commitments included a new information technology center, the Virginia Tech Innovation Campus. Together, Northern Virginia Community Colleges, George Mason University (a regional college known for its best-in-class work graduating students for a diverse workforce), and Virginia Tech (a top research university) agreed to produce more than 35,000 new graduates with skill-aligned certificates, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees. Notably, Virginia was not the leading bidder on tax incentives or cost of living; its economic development agency and higher education collaborative pumped $1.1 billion into creating the strongest, skills-aligned workforce package, compared with those of other bidders.8

Economic mobility is a bedrock, cross-partisan, American value, and greater mobility can be the shared fruit of economically competitive states that harness the innovation economy. Americans want to believe their children can be better off than prior generations. Unfortunately, today most Americans are skeptical of that possibility. Anxiety about the job market and broad economic pessimism helps explain why 78 percent of Americans—the highest measured lack of confidence since 1990—are not confident about their children’s future (including their prospects of economic mobility).9

Economic mobility is most often measured by movement across income quintiles or what is more commonly understood as improving one’s economic status over the course of one’s lifetime. In particular, it is understood as adult children being better off economically than their parents. Research has shown incontrovertibly that in every income quintile, those with a college education more frequently exceeded their parents’ income than those without a college education.10

Yet, while there is a strong correlation between education and income, educational attainment varies dramatically at all levels by racial and ethnic groups. Blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, and Pacific Islanders, for instance, have lower rates of educational attainment than their white and Asian peers,11 and these gaps are only growing. Economic mobility for those with lower attainment lags as well, with the gap only growing between those with lower attainment and those in higher quintiles who are able to accumulate wealth for future generations. Unemployment rates for college graduates are consistently lower than for people who have never attended college.12 Moreover, when the data are disaggregated further, certain subgroups of male Asian American Pacific Islanders, such as Native Hawaiians, have experienced downward intergenerational economic mobility.13 These disparities in educational attainment across racial and ethnic groups, coupled with growing gaps in economic mobility, underscore the urgent need for focused interventions and policies to address these inequalities.

In a time when higher education finds itself increasingly in the crossfire of partisan debates, there is broad consensus that postsecondary education should improve the conditions for increased economic mobility, particularly in the communities and populations historically left behind.14 As demonstrated in the following analysis of state policy momentum, policymakers in red and blue states—and the trustees they appoint—agree on the need to answer the question, “Is the student better off beyond graduation because of this postsecondary experience and credential?”

The Skilled Worker Shortage

Across the nation and world, employers, communities, and states face a shortage of skilled workers. While the U.S. innovation economy is growing, the size of the U.S. working-age population—its core input—is in decline.15 This decline is caused by early retirements, an aging population, and declining birth rates. The competition for working-age talent is global, and the U.S. will compete for scarce talent with Europe, China, Japan, and other strong economies facing a similar demographic decline. The implications, at both state and federal levels, are profound. Without increases in productivity and stronger innovation economies, family incomes (on average and for those with the least education) will decline and tax revenues will be insufficient to support long-term health care and retirement commitments. Because the U.S. workforce is not growing at the rate we need to drive economic growth, higher education has a responsibility to cultivate the knowledge, skills, and abilities—enhancing the productivity—of new and incumbent workers.

This year, 2024, marks the last before American higher education reaches the anticipated “enrollment cliff.” From 2025 to 2028, the number of 18-year-olds will decrease by 15 percent—a loss of 576,000 students and future skilled workers.16 The size and timing of this cliff, and the response to it, varies by state. Colleges in the Midwest and Northeast already have been grappling with population declines and will experience sharper decreases with even smaller traditional-age college (and working) populations. Indeed, the 60-plus cross-sectoral stakeholders comprising the Growing Michigan Together Council implored the governor and legislature this past December to reverse this trend by integrating education, workforce development, and economic development policies and structures.17

Meanwhile, the higher education “demand cliff” has already arrived.18 Between 2016 and 2021, the percentage of high school graduates who enroll in a two- or four-year institution by October of the year they complete high school declined from 70 percent to 62 percent.19 Demand is down for many reasons. For one, many available jobs don’t require a traditional two- or four-year degree, and students sometimes struggle to forgo immediate economic opportunities even when they believe that investing in higher education could lead to greater long-term benefits. Second, uncertainty looms large among young adults who have dropped out of college or never pursued college. Prospective students fear failure—and for good reason, given the low completion rates and high proportion (40 percent) of recent college graduates who are considered “underemployed,” meaning they are not working in a college-level job.20 Regardless of race, ethnicity, income, geography, or political affiliation, the public is telling us that higher education is increasingly inaccessible, unaffordable, and disconnected from the skills needed to get and keep good jobs.21

Furthermore, the skills of the workforce, including recent graduates of general (not technical) degree programs, have been misaligned with job openings for nearly a decade.22 Today, for example, Colorado has two job openings for every skilled worker.23 By 2030, national recruiting firm Korn Ferry calls this the “$8.5 Trillion Talent Shortage,” and projects more than 85 million jobs around the world could go unfilled because there won’t be enough skilled people to take them.24

State Leadership to Fuse Economic Development, Workforce Development, and Higher Ed

Strong bipartisan state support exists for education- and workforce-focused investments. Economic challenges and pervasive workforce gaps have incentivized policymakers to foster more cross-sector collaboration and to align funding with statewide goals. To ensure all sectors are working together in an integrated way towards sustainable solutions, state leaders are engaging in five kinds of activity (sometimes coordinated, as the subsequent discussion of Texas demonstrates):

1. Promote and lead an integrated, statewide vision for talent development and coordinate statewide leadership. To do so, states are using a variety of core tools that leaders need to embrace and codify for sustainability.

  • State attainment goals evolving to include skills associated with short-term, workforce-oriented credentials with labor market value. Forty states have attainment-focused goals that are aligned with state workforce needs and address equity gaps. Several, including Alabama, Colorado, Florida, Louisiana, and Texas, have refined or updated their goals to include high-value credentials.
  • Planning, rulemaking, communications, and funding streams coordinated for workforce development and postsecondary education. Nearly every state has already created a workforce development board or council with postsecondary representation. Indiana and Louisiana have gone further and established a workforce cabinet, chaired by the governor (or designee), to provide coordinated leadership, regularly mine and publish data on economic development and the labor market, and create aligned incentives and messages for learners and postsecondary providers. Missouri and Oregon formally consolidated the authorities of the previously stovepiped statewide agencies for higher education and workforce development.
  • Statewide master plans for talent. California Governor Gavin Newsom recently signed an executive order to develop a statewide master plan for career education that will align the various siloed investments in state workforce and education programs. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis directed the Florida Development Council to develop a new strategic plan that connects students, institutions, and employers; coordinates resources to improve education and training; and aligns programs and credentials with employer needs.

2. Link state educational and workforce data systems at the levels of students and skills and invest in statewide capacity to use these data.

  • A 2023 issue brief from the National Institute of Education Sciences analyzed the progress states are making on state longitudinal data systems.25 Twenty-nine states are “operational” in linking education and workforce data systems, and 43 states have been awarded federal Workforce Data Quality Initiative grants from the Department of Labor to “integrate workforce and employment data into longitudinal data systems.”26 To understand the quality of jobs, some states (Indiana and Kentucky) have enhanced the variables in their unemployment and wage record data (including occupational codes, job location, demographics, and other job features besides hours required and wages).27
  • Three states (Alabama, Montana, and Rhode Island) passed legislation in 2023 to codify cross-agency data governance.
  • Virginia provides a model for a strong, sustainable state longitudinal data system that facilitates the integration of economic and workforce development strategies with higher education pathways.28 In 2006 the state’s P-16 Council developed recommendations for establishing a comprehensive education-to-workforce data system that strictly protects the privacy of students. Legislation provides ongoing authority and funding to support data sharing between sectors.

3. Invest in outcomes that promote alignment between credentials earned, labor market value, and in-demand skills.

More than 15 states use outcomes-based funding as a policy tool to direct some portion of state resources to institutions to achieve particular student-centered outcomes aligned with state priorities. As state priorities for higher education shift to emphasize not just completion but completion of credentials of value, efforts to prioritize these credentials in state funding models also gain momentum. Louisiana’s outcomes-based funding model for both universities and community colleges includes a specific component on workforce alignment to recognize students who complete credentials in high-demand fields. The metric is directly aligned to “four- and five-star jobs” and fields—high-demand and high-wage jobs identified by the state’s pertinent agencies, the Workforce Investment Council, and Louisiana Economic Development.

North Carolina is poised to move forward with an ambitious plan to change how its community colleges are funded, using a formula that focuses on how well two-year institutions prepare students for high-demand, well-paying jobs. Importantly, the push, dubbed Propel NC, comes from the two-year institution system itself.29 As one community college leader told Work Shift, “If we don’t change and adapt and modernize, how are we going to stay relevant?”30 Under the proposal, the system would allocate funding to its 58 community colleges on the basis of courses offered by the workforce sector, eliminate arbitrary distinctions between credit-bearing and noncredit programs, and reduce the unnecessary and often harmful emphasis on degrees. It would incentivize the colleges to work more closely with employers in fast-growing workforce sectors and to create more short-term training programs that can serve as on-ramps to good careers. Recent work in Texas discussed in depth below, leads the nation here.

In the last decade, states have made a significant shift in the approach they are taking to support student success beyond completion, as evidenced by the considerable rise in their investments in short-term credential pathways. These pathways are increasingly being recognized for their value in the workforce and for individual economic mobility. A 2023 analysis by HCM Strategists estimates that states have invested—at a minimum—a staggering $3.81 billion in these pathways.31 The majority of these investments have occurred in the last three to four years, notably since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

These investments strategically fund short-term credentials determined to be of value, particularly workforce value, on the basis of employer or industry demand, job prospects, and potential for economic mobility. It has been particularly difficult to measure outcomes of short-term credentials and credential pathways, but significant efforts and investments are underway in states to apply frameworks that ensure funding is provided to incentivize short-term credentials of value. States are focusing on these credentials of value because they serve a dual purpose: they address chronic employment gaps by preparing people for in-demand jobs in growing industries vital to the state economy, and they enhance the well-being and economic prospects of residents. By equipping people with valuable skills for well-paying jobs, these credentials offer a pathway to improved job opportunities and continued educational advancement, thereby contributing significantly to both individual and state economic vitality. Among state investments in short-term credential pathways, Alabama and Virginia stand out for their innovative and impactful programs.

The AlabamaWorks! Credentialing Framework plays a pivotal role in enhancing short-term pathways that support the state’s workforce development. This framework has two primary functions: it annually identifies regional and statewide in-demand occupations, career pathways, and credentials of value; and it rigorously evaluates credentials to determine whether to include them in the Alabama Compendium of Valuable Credentials. This initiative stemmed from state leaders’ recognition of the importance of learning acquired through short-term programs for accelerating progress in postsecondary education. They sought to address a lack of coordination among learning pathways that previously made career transitions overly challenging and time-consuming.

Virginia’s New Economy Workforce Credential Grant is a pay-for-performance state aid program in which the Commonwealth pays up to two-thirds of the cost of short-term workforce training that leads to in-demand jobs. To date, the grant program has enrolled 44,476 people, with an impressive 42,712 (96 percent) successfully completing their courses. The financial structure of the grant program is designed to optimize student affordability and state resource allocation. In addition, the program has had a significant impact on the earnings of its students. Twelve months after exiting grant-funded training, the median wages of participants had increased by 22 percent, with a median annual wage increase of $5,397. The grant program predominantly serves a nontraditional demographic: adult students (median age: thirty-two), two-thirds of them attending college for the first time.

4. Expand and prioritize high-quality education-to-career coaching and advising that is integrated into pathways and accessible to every learner.

Career navigation tools are not well understood or widely used in this country. As a result, too many workers become trapped in low-paying jobs without the hope or knowledge of how to advance their careers. A report from the National Fund for Workforce Solutions showed that people of color and women are most affected by a lack of good information about career pathway opportunities, and as such, are overrepresented in low-wage jobs.32

Intentional integration of high-quality career coaching into education pathways can improve equitable outcomes for underrepresented students by providing the knowledge and personalized support necessary for a successful, upward career trajectory.

  • In 2023, Florida legislation required all Florida public colleges to provide entering students with admissions counseling and career credit programs, as well as a statewide online student advising and support system, accessible at any time.33
  • Colorado’s current strategic plan for career and technical education for secondary and postsecondary learners includes career advisement and development as a primary goal.34 Key indicators include cross-collaboration between programs, partners, and initiatives to strengthen alignment, and increases in the number of educators who are trained as career coaches.
  • Accelerate Montana is a unique partnership between the flagship public university, two-year state colleges, employers, industry associations, and chambers of commerce.35 The project is beginning with a focus on tech and trade jobs—opposite ends of the labor market. It also promotes statewide adoption of skills data to help better align postsecondary education with workforce needs.
  • Career coaching is one of the pillars of Texas’s Tri-Agency Workforce Initiative in which the Coordinating Board takes the lead, building on work that has been developed over the past several years to support college and career advising.

5. Integrate work-based learning into graduation requirements (to help students connect learning to a career) and invest in paid internship and apprenticeship opportunities.

A wide disconnect exists between education and workforce systems. Students often don’t know how to navigate career pathway opportunities and don’t understand the skills employers are seeking. Misalignment between institutional and employer priorities result in skills gaps that leave employers struggling to find trained workers. Work-based learning models, including apprenticeships and internships, can alleviate many of these issues by giving students on-the-job experience and helping them to build skills that align with current workforce needs. Employers gain access to a ready pipeline of skilled talent. High-quality, work-based learning experiences are shown to help reduce employment inequities for students of color through training in skills and building of social capital that can lead to improved economic outcomes, including favorable job placement and upward economic mobility.36

  • Indiana’s high school graduation pathways include a requirement that all students “learn and demonstrate employability skills” including participation in a project-, service-, or work-based learning experience.37 The state’s strategic workforce plan includes a strategy of seamlessly integrating the work-based learning system into the state’s talent development system with the goal of all students having some work-based learning experience.38
  • California’s Golden State Pathways grant program provides financial support for expanding work-based learning opportunities for students in high-demand workforce areas such as technology and health care.39
  • According to the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, 27 states have a system or state policy, or legislation, that requires institutions to assess and award credit for advanced placement courses and prior learning beyond military experience.40 Oregon and Washington have both passed Prior Learning Assessment legislation designed to increase student participation, which includes the establishment of advisory groups and benchmark goals.41

A Closer Look at Leadership in the Lone Star State

In Texas, higher education is leading the way to fuse economic and workforce development with higher education. Its comprehensive approach to goal setting, research and development, community college finance, college and career advising, transfer policy, and integration of educational and workforce data support the state’s ability to compete in an innovation economy. In so doing, the state helps distribute the benefits of good jobs to communities large and small.

For context, Texas is home to more than 30 million people and adds more than 1,200 new residents every day. Five of the 15 largest cities in America and six of the fastest-growing cities are in Texas. The Texas economy is currently the eighth largest in the world.

In December, the Bureau of Economic Analysis released new data showing that Texas’s economy is expanding faster than that of the United States for the fourth quarter in a row. The state has experienced 24 consecutive months of job growth and continues to create more jobs than any other state. But the state is not focused just on increasing the number of jobs. It’s focused on the skills new jobs require, especially good jobs.

Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce projects that by 2031 about 63 percent of all jobs in Texas will require education and training beyond a high school diploma.42 However, today only 48 percent of working-age Texans have certificates or degrees beyond high school diplomas. Short-term workforce credentials might add 6 percent to this estimate.43 According to the Census, Texas still has nearly four million working-age residents who have some college and no credential. Approximately two million working-age Texans don’t have high school diplomas or equivalencies.44

Understanding the economic landscape in Texas has been crucial to developing and implementing higher education policies. In fact, the state’s strategic plan, Building a Talent Strong Texas, emphasizes the state’s future competitiveness by conditioning its goals for higher education on the value of credentials in the state economy.45 When writing this plan, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and its partners at the Texas Higher Education Foundation consulted hundreds of employers, educators, and community leaders across the state as well as the public. It was important to understand what changes needed to be made and to establish clear goals.

The plan has three major components. First, the state expanded its target for educational attainment to at least 60 percent of the state’s entire working-age population having a credential beyond a high school diploma by 2030. Second, the state put down a marker to count only credentials of value toward the state goal of 550,000 degrees, certificates, and other credentials awarded every year. Third, the state set new goals to increase private and federally sponsored research funding by at least $1 billion a year and to increase the awarding of research doctorates to at least 7,500 a year.

To build the plan and track progress, state leaders have examined data about graduates’ earnings and costs, and asked whether typical students would be financially better off after earning a given credential, even accounting for students’ opportunity costs. If a typical student would not be better off within a decade, the state decided that the credential should not count toward its goals.

Making sure students can realize the value of their credentials also means being vigilant about student debt. So, Texas set a target of 95 percent of undergraduates finishing either with no federal or state debt or with debt that is manageable given typical earnings for their credentials.

Funding, Metrics, Policy, and Data System Capacity Aligned with Statewide Goals To Guide Student Success Beyond Completion

Closing skill gaps has proven stubbornly challenging for higher education and state policy to change. One of the critical drivers of rapid change in Texas higher education policy has been strategic state investments, aligned with its statewide goals.

In 2020, Governor Greg Abbott and legislative leaders made Texas one of only a few states to prioritize higher education for flexible stimulus funding available through the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund programs. Ultimately, state leaders entrusted nearly $360 million to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board for student financial aid, institutional innovation grants, and strengthening of state support structures for higher education, including modern data infrastructure and digital advising resources for students and families.

During the 2021 session, the legislature passed H.B. 3767, formalizing the Governor’s Tri-Agency Workforce Initiative, which brings together the Texas Education Agency, Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, and Texas Workforce Commission. It also passed S.B. 788, which formalized data-sharing agreements among the agencies. One of the Initiative’s priorities is to create a robust infrastructure for interagency collaboration on common goals, improved data systems, and processes to ensure better student outcomes. Among its major accomplishments to date is the development of a master data-sharing agreement, which significantly simplifies the process by which data are processed and shared across the agencies. Under this agreement, Texas is one of the few states in the country that has the capability to safely mask data among agencies, which permits better analysis and collaboration. In addition, the new agreement allows the agencies to track an individual’s progress over time, from public Pre-K programs through to the workforce.

In 2023, the 88th Texas Legislature made historic investments of more than $5 billion for students and higher education institutions to advance the state’s shared vision for building a talent-strong Texas.46 One of the most important strategic investments was the establishment of the Texas University Fund with nearly $4 billion. This endowment will increase the number of Texas universities that can compete with leading national and global research universities. The legislature also increased state support for research, development, and innovation in other ways, including nearly $2 billion in targeted investments to make sure the state can compete in semiconductors, aerospace, and space technologies.

Across the board, the metrics guiding these investments in research and development were aligned with the goals of Building a Talent Strong Texas. At the request of Governor Abbott, the legislature also made strategic investments in college and career advising, especially to support the implementation of My Texas Future, a one-stop online advising toolkit developed with support from the Texas Education Agency and the Texas Workforce Commission.47

My Texas Future includes tools to help students explore potential career opportunities, find related higher education programs, develop plans, and get connected with institutions. Additional planning tools are being released during 2024 both for adult learners and for secondary students, including a tool to help students compare recommended course sequences across programs and optimize choices. In the summer, the Coordinating Board will launch an updated version of the state’s college application, ApplyTexas, within My Texas Future. This new approach will streamline the college application process by prepopulating students’ applications. The new version of ApplyTexas will also support direct admissions to participating Texas institutions, so even more residents can unlock their potential through higher education.

Texas community colleges also received historic investments in 2023 when the legislature unanimously passed H.B. 8, which completely transformed their state funding model.48 This legislation implements an entirely new finance system, in which 95 percent of community colleges’ formula funding is tied directly to student outcomes. Colleges receive additional funding for producing credentials in high-demand fields and for achieving outcomes with specific categories of students, including those who were not college-ready upon initial enrollment, Pell recipients, and adult learners. The bill also included new funding to stabilize small colleges and those that serve rural areas and an increase of more than 125 percent in financial aid for community college students in academic and workforce programs.

Texas’s new outcomes-based community college finance system and the rules developed in close collaboration with community college leaders are a model for the nation—an example not only of policy innovation but also of policy implementation—for its strong, trusted collaborations among policymakers, higher education leaders, and other stakeholders.

The Texas Legislature also invested in another core responsibility for the Coordinating Board as a steward of the state’s educational and workforce data, bolstering its work with the Tri-Agency Workforce Initiative. For years, the state has been recognized as a leader for the scope of the data it collects, but it has often been challenging for institutions and other stakeholders to access and use this data to inform key policy and operational decisions.

Since 2020, the Coordinating Board has been working with the Texas Higher Education Foundation, state and national philanthropies, policymakers, and institutions across the state on a transformational initiative to make educational and workforce data readily accessible and useful. Today, all the state’s legacy data has been migrated into a more secure and modern cloud-based infrastructure. This allows state agencies to power new dashboards and tools for institutional leaders, policymakers, and the public, and new advising tools for students. The Coordinating Board has already released the first round of public data tools on its website as well as new secure dashboards for all public two- and four-year institutions that include detailed data about key indicators such as enrollments and graduations, transfer student profiles, and labor market outcomes.49

Integration in Action: Dallas College

Dallas College, a multicampus community college and early leader, has both inspired statewide higher education policy changes and illustrated the integration of economic and workforce development with higher education. Its Career Connected Learner Network exemplifies how institutions can effectively align educational initiatives with statewide economic development goals and related workforce demands.50 The college leverages partnerships and labor market data to create impactful career pathways with K–12 systems and employers through dual-credit programs, P-TECH (Pathways in Technology) programs, and early college high schools for seamless education-to-career transitions.

Central to Dallas College’s strategy is using labor market data to inform program development and modification. This data-driven approach ensures that the college’s offerings are aligned with current and future job market needs, enhancing the relevance and employability of its graduates.

The Dallas College TRUE Pathways initiative is particularly noteworthy.51/sup> It offers students avenues to start with non-credit credentials that lead to well-paying jobs but build a foundation for them to continue their educational careers. For instance, pathways in sectors such as health care and technology allow students to “earn while they learn,” gaining practical experience and credentials simultaneously. These students continue their education with a credential and a job while earning a living wage.

The Dallas College teacher apprenticeship program further exemplifies the work-learn model. This innovative program helps address the teacher shortage in North Texas by allowing students to earn a bachelor’s degree in teaching while gaining hands-on experience as resident teachers. It also provides financial support during their apprenticeship.

By aligning programs with labor market trends and focusing on graduation rates, job placement, and wage data, Dallas College not only ensures a student’s success beyond completion but also addresses statewide economic and workforce goals.

Implications for Higher Education Governing Boards

Higher education governing boards can contribute to the work of fusing economic and workforce development with academic programs, career support, and student experiences. Trustees of statewide governing or coordinating boards, system-level boards, and institutional ones can engage to promote economic opportunity and economic competitiveness in their community and state in the following ways:

  1. Enhance the scope of fiduciary and strategic oversight of students’ success beyond college completion. Specifically, board members should ask: Are students better off as a result of their experiences and the credentials they earned? How do we know? Where do we see program misalignment with the skills required for successful employment? Where do we see unequal opportunities to prepare for and enter a good job immediately after completion, and how are we addressing them? How are we contributing to the state’s economic development goals? What are we contributing to the innovation economy in the region and the state? How are we contributing to increased economic mobility, regionally and statewide?
  2. Upgrade committee structures and board agendas to integrate issues of success beyond college. For example, Metropolitan State University of Denver has a standing committee on academics and student success. The university recognizes that future oversight needs to include how students—the majority of whom are first generation students and students of color—experience career preparation, skills-aligned programs of study, career navigation, job placement, and ongoing institutional support for career advancement.
  3. Incorporate data-driven decision-making. Boards should ensure their decisions are informed by current labor market trends and economic forecasts, guiding program development and adaptations to the changing job market. They should aim to upgrade institutional dashboards and strategic plans to include metrics and benchmarks that integrate regional labor market data, state economic growth projections, and student-level post-completion outcomes. At a minimum, boards should monitor the core metrics of credential production, time to completion, earnings by program, and relative debt burdens (for instance, can debt be repaid with typical earnings for the credential within ten years?).
  4. Use the board’s collective authority to ensure that the institution’s programs, student supports, and budgets align with the skills associated with placement and success in good jobs. Ask how employers in the traded sectors and the innovation sector have been engaged in this assessment of alignment. What evidence do you have that employers have validated the skills of recent graduates, reviewed curriculums, or contributed to program designs? Ask how many programs integrate practical work experiences, such as internships, to connect theory with real-world, practical skills. How does the board assess how well an institution supports current and potential students with career guidance and advising, a clear line of sight from academic and workforce programs to jobs, and help to navigate career paths, aligning education with career aspirations?
  5. Ask how the institution overall and trustees in particular can be part of the region’s economic development efforts. This can include trade missions, corporate relocation committees, corporate visits, and community-wide entities focused on expanding opportunities for economic mobility.

The integration of higher education, workforce development, and economic development is a new core competency that colleges and universities and their governing boards must master. The consequence of not integrating these functions, including at the governing board level, is stark. The inability of employers and states to compete for and create good jobs leads to the likelihood that fewer families and communities will thrive. The promise of an integrated approach to higher education, workforce development, and economic development is transformative economic and social opportunities for students, institutions, communities, states, and our nation.

Kristin D. Hultquist, MPP, is CEO and founding partner for HCM Strategists, and a nationally renowned expert in higher education policy and strategy development. Hultquist’s thirty-year career includes work at the federal and state levels, where she focuses on policies that improve opportunity and economic mobility, particularly for first-generation students. She currently chairs the board of trustees for Metropolitan State University in Denver, Colorado, the largest Hispanic-serving institution in the state.

Harrison Keller, PhD, is commissioner of higher education for the State of Texas and chief executive officer for the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. Dr. Keller is a sixth-generation Texan with nearly twenty-five years of experience in state budget and policy, university administration, fundraising, and building coalitions among higher education institutions, school districts, and policymakers. He holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Notre Dame and a master’s degree and doctorate in philosophy from Georgetown.


1. NORC at the University of Chicago, “WSJ/NORC Poll March 2023,” Wall Street Journal (March 2023),

2. “America’s Hidden Common Ground on Public Higher Education: What’s Wrong and How to Fix It,” Public Agenda (July 11, 2022),; Stephanie Marken, “Half in U.S. Now Consider College Education Very Important,” Gallup (December 30, 2019),

3. Edge Research and HCM Strategists, “Where Are the Students? New Research into College Enrollment Declines,” Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (September 28, 2022),

4. Enrico Moretti, The New Geography of Jobs (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012), 60.

5. Moretti, The New Geography, 55.

6. Moretti, The New Geography, 57.

8. Luke Mullins, “The Real Story of How Virginia Won Amazon’s HQ2,” Washingtonian (June 16, 2019),

9. Janet Adamy, “Most Americans Doubt Their Children Will Be Better Off, WSJ-NORC Poll Finds,” Wall Street Journal (March 24, 2023),

10. Ron Haskins, “Education and Economic Mobility,” The Pew Charitable Trusts (July 2016),

12. “Unemployment Rate—College Graduates—Bachelor’s Degree, 25 to 34 years,” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, retrieved from FRED, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis (January 19, 2024),; “Unemployment Rate—High School Graduates, No College, 25 Yrs. & Over,” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, retrieved from FRED, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis (January 19, 2024),

13. Robert T. Teranishi and Bach Mai Dolly Nguyen, “The Significance of Data Disaggregation in the Study of Boys and Men of Color: Perspectives from the Asian American and Pacific Islander Student Population,” University of Southern California Race and Equity Center (August 2020),; Anna Byon and Amanda Janice Roberson, “Everyone Deserves to be Seen: Recommendations for Improved Federal Data on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI),” Southeast Asia Resource Action Center and the Institute for Higher Education Policy (May 2020),

14. “America’s Hidden Common Ground on Public Higher Education: What’s Wrong and How to Fix It,” Public Agenda (July 11, 2022),; Stephanie Marken, “Half in U.S. Now Consider College Education Very Important,” Gallup (December 30, 2019),

15. Diana Elliott, “Want Another Perspective on the U.S. Labor Shortage? Talk to a Demographer,” Population Reference Bureau (January 20, 2023),

16. Missy Kline, “The Looming Higher Ed Enrollment Cliff,” Higher Ed HR Magazine (Fall 2019),

17. Growing Michigan Together Council, Growing Michigan Together Council Report (December 14, 2023),

18. Rebecca Mathews, Bijan Warner, and Peter Stokes, “Managing the Demand Cliff,” Inside Higher Ed (October 16, 2023),

19. National Center for Education Statistics, “Immediate College Enrollment Rate,” U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences (May 2023),

20. Dave Clayton and Nichole Torpey-Saboe, “2021 Strada Outcomes Survey: Student Outcomes Beyond Completion,” Strada Education Network (October 27, 2021),; Stephen Moret and Jeffrey Selingo, “More Than Half of Americans No Longer Believe College Is Worth the Cost. Paid Internships Could Help,” Fast Company (January 9, 2024),

21. Edge Research and HCM Strategists, “Where Are the Students? New Research into College Enrollment Declines,” Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (September 28, 2022),

22. James Bessen, “Employers Aren’t Just Whining—the ‘Skills Gap’ Is Real,” Harvard Business Review (August 25, 2014),

23. Tamara Chuang, “What’s Working: Colorado Has 190,000 Job Openings and 95,000 Unemployed People—A Disconnect?,” The Colorado Sun (August 19, 2023),

24. Yannick Binvel, Michael Franzino, Alan Guarino, Jean-Marc Laouchez, and Werner Penk, “The $8.5 Trillion Talent Shortage,” Korn Ferry (accessed January 17, 2024),

25.National Center for Education Statistics, “SLDS Issue Brief: Sources and Linking Strategies for Employment Data,” U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences (January 2023),

26. Julia Bloom-Weltman, Rose Honey, Sarah Meholick, and Marshal Fettro, “Profile of State Data Capacity in 2018: Statewide Longitudinal Data Systems (SLDS) Survey Descriptive Statistics,” National Center for Education Statistics at Institute of Education Sciences (April 2021),; “Workforce Data Quality Initiative (WDQI),” U.S. Department of Labor (accessed January 18, 2024),

27. William J. Congdon and Batia Katz, “Job Quality and Wage Records: The Potential Role of Administrative Wage Data for Understanding Job Quality,” Urban Institute (May 2023),–05/Job%20Quality%20and%20Wage%20Records.pdf.

28. “The Virginia Longitudinal Data System,” State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) (accessed January 17, 2024),

29. “Propel NC,” North Carolina Community Colleges (accessed January 17, 2024),

30. Margaret Moffett, “North Carolina’s Community Colleges Make a Big Bid to Stay Relevant,” Work Shift (January 18, 2024),

31. Stephanie M. Murphy, “A Typology and Policy Landscape Analysis of State Investments in Short-term Credential Pathways,” HCM Strategists (2023),

32. Joseph B. Fuller, Kerry McKittrick, Sherry Seibel, Cole Wilson, Vasundhara Dash, and Ali Epstein, “Unlocking Economic Prosperity: Career Navigation in a Time of Rapid Change,” Harvard Kennedy School (November 29, 2023),

34. “2019–2024 Strategic Plan,” Colorado CTE (accessed January 17, 2024),–2024_Strategic_Plan_Final.pdf.

35. Accelerate MT (accessed January 17, 2024),

36. Martha Ross, Richard Kazis, Nicole Bateman, and Laura Stateler, “Work-based Learning Can Advance Equity and Opportunity for America’s Young People,” Brookings Institution (November 20, 2020),

37. “Graduation Pathways Panel,” Indiana State Board of Education (accessed January 17, 2024),

38. Governor’s Workforce Cabinet, Indiana’s Strategic Workforce Plan, 2020–24 (February 6, 2020),

40. Erin Whinnery, “50-State Comparison: Prior Learning Assessment Policies, 2017,” Education Commission of the States (December 4, 2017),

41. “2023 Report to the Oregon Legislature: Oregon Revised Statute 350.110 Credit for Prior Learning,” Oregon Higher Education Coordinating Commission (accessed January 17, 2024),; “2022 Academic Credit for Prior Learning (ACPL) Report Update,” Washington Student Achievement Council (accessed February 22, 2024)

42. Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, After Everything: Projections of Jobs, Education, and Training Requirements through 2031 (2023),

43. Harrison Keller, “The State of Higher Education 2023,” Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (2023),

44. Keller, “The State of Higher Education 2023.”

45. “Building a Talent Strong Texas,” Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (accessed January 17, 2024),

46. “88th Texas Legislature Makes Historic Investments in Higher Education,” Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (accessed January 17, 2024),

47. My Texas Future (accessed January 17, 2024),

48. “Community College Finance,” Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (accessed January 17, 2024),

49. Texas Higher Ed Data, Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (accessed January 17, 2024),

50. “Career Connected Learning and Free Training,” Dallas College (accessed January 17, 2024),

51. “Texas Reskilling & Upskilling through Education (TRUE) Pathways,” Dallas College (accessed January 17, 2024),

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