Opinion

6 ways the state can expand economic opportunity in 2017

As Gov. Andrew Cuomo crisscrossed New York on his State of the State tour, a key theme was economic opportunity: why it’s vital to take action now and how the state can help more New Yorkers take advantage of today’s economy. The governor’s announcements hinted at a coming period of federal retrenchment, which will force New York to become more self-reliant in identifying and expanding policies to reduce inequality and build pathways to the middle class.

At a time when federal support for human capital is shrinking, the state should seek a leadership role in the national conversation, piloting and scaling innovative strategies to support expanded economic opportunities for all New Yorkers. Here are six ways the governor and state Legislature could wisely invest in New York residents.

  1. Double the number of low-skilled youth and adults served by bridge programs.

In today’s economy, most New Yorkers without a high school diploma are blocked from the path to a middle-class job. As more and more employers seek workers with at least some postsecondary education, opportunities for youth with limited education and training slip further out of reach.

Bridge programs offer a promising hybrid model of workforce development and education that merges job training and adult literacy to boost young people with as little as a seventh-grade reading level into an upwardly mobile career. The bridge model clearly works, and a number of states have embraced it. New York is just not one of them. There are fewer than a dozen bridge programs statewide, serving only a few hundred students at most.

Cuomo and the state Legislature should embrace this important new hybrid model and set a goal of doubling the number of low-skilled youths and adults served by bridge programs by the end of 2018. State officials can accomplish this with a relatively small investment: Expand operating aid the state already provides to community colleges; or provide competitive grants to both colleges and nonprofits to build collaborative bridge models and evaluate their effectiveness.

  1. Support community colleges in rethinking developmental education.

While more than 40,000 students enter community colleges throughout the state every year, an alarmingly high number of them drop out and the state’s developmental educational system deserves much of the blame. By reforming the state’s outdated approach to developmental education, New York could significantly increase the number of community college students who stay in school long enough to earn a credential.

Each year, 80 percent of students entering CUNY community colleges and half of those entering SUNY’s system lack college readiness in math, reading and writing skills. CUNY and SUNY assign these students to remedial courses, which they must pass prior to taking courses for credit. The consequences are devastating. Remedial students are far more likely to drop out by the end of their first year and the vast majority will fail to graduate with a degree, while using up their limited financial aid dollars in the process. Yet experts now know that many students placed into remedial education can succeed in credit-bearing courses with the right support.

Both CUNY and SUNY are now seeking to implement reforms at community colleges with extensive developmental education programs. But they need outside funding to boost colleges that are launching reforms and incentivize the rest to get started. With the right incentives, New York can transform its ineffective system and help thousands of students in the process.

  1. Cut the red tape that holds back New York’s career and technical schools.

New York’s career and technical education schools have experienced a renaissance over the past generation. By providing students with an alternative pathway into growing fields such as network engineering, fashion and design, health sciences, and emergency management, these schools give disadvantaged young people a boost toward an upwardly mobile career.

Unfortunately, New York is weakening a vital competitive edge for these schools: the ability to connect students with industry-recognized credentials, putting them on the fast track to skilled employment. The state Education Department approves assessments so that students can receive a diploma endorsed by career and technical schools. But professionals express concern that the department’s process for approving these assessments is too slow, seemingly arbitrary and poorly connected to the real expectations of employers. For example, the system lacks many tests widely accepted by employers, such as assessments on common programming languages including Java and Python.

The state Education Department should set default standards for an assessment to become recognized by the state, such as having a certain number of employers attest to its value and relevance. If the assessment meets this standard, then technical schools would be able to use it immediately. Such an approach would put authority over technical school assessments where it urgently needs to be: in the hands of employers.

  1. Modernize the Tuition Assistance Program to meet the needs of today’s students.

Colleges across the state are establishing academic programs that provide intensive instruction over a shorter period so students can complete their studies rapidly and return to the workforce. These accelerated degree programs provide real value to students, but they often do not fit neatly into the standard semester format on which financial aid programs are based – an innovation that is costing some students dearly. The federal government has adjusted Pell Grants to accommodate accelerated degree programs, but New York has failed to follow suit with its Tuition Assistance Program.

The state should establish clear guidelines around financial aid eligibility for degree programs that are shorter than a standard academic semester or year, perhaps by adopting the Pell model. Shorter-term degree programs in welding, medical coding, and other in-demand fields can open the door to better jobs for thousands more New Yorkers, if only the Tuition Assistance Program could facilitate access to this education.

  1. Harness the abilities of skilled immigrants by getting their careers back on track.

New York state is home to more than 200,000 college-educated immigrants who work in low-skilled jobs or are unemployed. Many of these immigrants are unable to obtain licenses to practice in their fields because of the time and costs required, or due to limited English proficiency. Yet few public services exist to help skilled immigrants get their careers back on track. In New York City, for example, one out of every four immigrant taxi drivers has at least a bachelor’s degree. Allowing New York’s educated immigrants to put their skills to use is a relatively simple way for the state to expand economic opportunity at little cost.

New York state has already done pioneering work to support new immigrants. For instance, Cuomo established the Office for New Americans to help newcomers navigate the path to citizenship and access government services that can ease their transition. As part of that important initiative, the office should partner with The Empire State Development Corp. to pilot a program like Canada’s Immigrant Access Fund, which provides skilled immigrants with small loans. This program would help thousands of immigrants lead more fulfilling lives and improve outcomes for their children, while producing an incredible return on investment by enabling people with valuable skills to contribute more to the state’s economy.

  1. Create a statewide workforce development fund to support worker training.

The rise of the knowledge-based economy has left New York behind the skills curve and struggling to catch up. Over the past generation, industry sectors have adopted new technologies and automated every possible aspect of their work, so that virtually all well-paying jobs in these sectors require skills beyond the high school level. Over this same period, the federal government has slashed its investment in workforce skills training. In fact, the main federal workforce development program has seen its funding cut by two-thirds since 2001, and much of the remaining budget is devoted simply to matching job applicants with employers.

Several states – notably California, Minnesota and Massachusetts – have found creative ways to replace federal skills training dollars with state dollars, while developing programs that are more responsive to employers. Minnesota generated $48.6 million from a 0.1 percent tax on employer payrolls. In California, a payroll tax of up to $7 per employee per year goes towards a customized training program called the Employment Training Panel that upgrades the skills of incumbent workers. In 2013, the California program spent $67 million to train more than 69,000 workers. Massachusetts also supports its Workforce Competitiveness Trust Fund through state taxes. New York should design and implement its own workforce development fund by adapting one of these state models, or dedicate money from the regional economic development councils to focus on the specific needs of regional labor markets and local employers.

Although the barriers to economic mobility are daunting, New York state can make major progress in 2017. Combining minimal expenditures with maximum results, these six policy ideas are a great place to start. But lawmakers should recognize this moment for what it is: a historic opportunity to make serious investments in human capital, setting an example for the rest of the country by preparing more New Yorkers for the economy of tomorrow.

Tom Hilliard and Christian González-Rivera are senior researchers at the Center for an Urban Future. The full version of this commentary can be found at nycfuture.org.

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