Higher Education Policies Drive Economic Growth

Pam Sornson, JD

Pam Sornson, JD

At its heart, higher education policy focuses on optimizing all available assets to improve student outcomes. Layered over that fundamental truth is a myriad of specific concerns and mandates, each of which must be considered before making a final policy determination. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, creating an overarching policy that adequately addressed the majority of relevant higher education concerns was a challenge; during and after the pandemic, that challenge is and will be even greater.

Pasadena City College’s (PCC) Economic and Workforce Development department (EWD) also perceives student success as its highest goal, but it pursues those outcomes a little differently than other higher education institutions. Rather than focusing on a student’s course grades as their highest achievements, the EWD seeks to provide its students with vocational and Career and Technical Education (CTE) insights, work-based learning opportunities, internships, and other occupationally related activities that will enhance their job-finding and career futures. The EWD sees ‘well-employed workers’ as its ultimate achievement, and it is structured to provide the services needed to produce those outcomes.

And like all higher education schools, the parameters and standards applied to those CTE courses and programs are designed according to – yes – policy.


CTE Policies and the Emerging American Economy

Not all education policies fit every form of educational opportunity. CTE and related training education requires policy creation that responds to the needs of the community and the students. In the U.S., there is a severe labor force lack of workers with well-honed ‘middle skills,’ those acquired beyond high school but don’t flow from a four-year degree. Jobs that require these types of skills exist in every industry, and many industries report that the lack of workers in these positions significantly impairs their productivity. A recent survey revealed that up to 47% of all manufacturers struggle to fill open middle-skilled positions, while in healthcare, 35% of such jobs remain unfilled, and even over 20% of retail posts remain open due to a lack of a qualified pool of applicants.

The ongoing challenge posed by this gap in qualified workers is that both they and the economy suffer. Most middle-skill jobs pay reasonably well to start and offer the opportunity to earn significantly more as those careers develop. Middle-skill workers can earn enough to qualify for mortgages, car loans, and other upwardly mobile assets, which enhances their lives and stimulates and helps to grow the local economy. When those positions remain unfilled, those businesses achieve less than their optimal outputs, earn fewer revenues, and have fewer resources to contribute back to the community.

The response to this challenge is to develop educational policies that support middle-skill training and then invest in the resources needed to make that training available, which is precisely what many states are now doing.



Public Dollars Follow Policy Recommendations

These days, government investments in CTE programs are rising as agencies seek employment opportunities for thousands of unemployed workers. In many cases, those investments follow the recommendations of researchers who study both the factors that inhibit or prevent potential workers from obtaining the new training, as well as local and regional industry labor realities. Connecting the two – removing educational barriers while providing needed training opportunities – promises a better-skilled workforce and a well-employed community.


At the State Level – Tennessee

One state has been pursuing these objectives for several years. Tennessee has developed several unique initiatives designed to address specific educational challenges facing the state’s citizens:

Drive to 55

The state intends to equip 55 percent of Tennesseans with a college degree or certificate by 2025. It’s harnessing the efforts of its private sector partners, community, and non-profit organizations to work together to develop the training and employment opportunities needed to lift more than half its citizens beyond a high school education.

Tennessee Promise

In conjunction with the Drive to 55 initiative, the Tennessee Promise scholarship program offers high school graduates two free years of community college education.

Tennessee Reconnect

Also an adjunct to the Drive to 55 initiative, this program facilitates free community or technical college education to any adult who wants to obtain one.

As the Drive to 55 initiative rolled out, Tennessee recognized it lacked the data needed to justify its actions and with which it could build stronger foundations for future educational and economic growth. In 2017, it launched the Tennessee Postsecondary Evaluation & Analysis Research Lab (TN-PEARL) as that research facility.

Working together with the Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC), the Boyd Center for Business and Economic Research, and Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development, the TN-PEARL studies the barriers that prevent Tennesseans’ from achieving post-secondary success and helps to guide state policy on alleviating those challenges. Its Leadership, Policy, and Organizations department chair, Carolyn J. Heinrich, discusses her focus on workforce development, public management, and social welfare policy and how those impact social and economic investments in middle-income communities with Salvatrice Cummo, the Executive Director of Pasadena City College’s Economic and Workforce Development department.


At the Federal Level

At the federal level, higher education investments also got a boost in late 2020, when Congress passed a $900 B COVID relief package. Contained within the Bill are several policy improvements designed to ease access to high education opportunities both during and after the COVID pandemic.

    • The new formula for Pell Grant eligibility provides full grant access to families that earn up to 175% of the federal poverty standard (225% for single-parent families). Those making 275% (325%) are guaranteed the minimum grant allowance.
    • The “expected family contribution’ is replaced by a ‘student aid index,’ which can be negative, indicating those students with the highest need for financial assistance.
    • The Bill also significantly changes the Federal Application for Financial Student Aid (FAFSA) document, reducing the number of questions from 100+ to just 36. This change makes it easier for potential students to move through the federal financial aid system.

In addition to forgiving $1.3 B in low-cost loans to historically Black colleges, the Bill drives $22.7 B in funding toward higher education. It offers maximum Pell Grant funding to 1.7 million additional students and guaranteed minimum funding to another 500 M more.


The policies that drive Tennessee, other state government, and federal government higher education spending reflect the data flowing from researchers like TN-PEARL, which add insight and clarity to the challenges facing both potential workers and employers. Using that data allows decision-makers to shape CTE and technical training policies that will make a difference in the lives of the country’s workers – both actual and potential – which will, in turn, build the country’s economic fortunes, too.


PCC’s CTE: Jobs. Occupations. Careers.
Future of Work Panelists: DEI Everywhere
Dual Enrollment Bolsters College Success