About 36 percent of Americans age 25 and older have earned at least a bachelor’s degree. They’re less likely to be unemployed and more likely to earn more money than people who have completed less, or no, postsecondary education. For a long time, these realities have made a college credential seem like one of the most promising pathways to career and financial security, despite the barriers and potholes that sometimes mar that road.
But should it really be a diploma that points the way to opportunity, or the skills that diploma (supposedly) signifies? What if people could get those skills without going to college? What if, thanks to their own experiences, they’ve already got them?
These questions have been at the heart of the Trump administration’s approach to workforce development. Over the past four years, the White House created a pledge to grow non-college training programs for American workers, issued an executive order directing the government to reduce the use of minimum education requirements for filling federal job opportunities, and convened a policy advisory board that is developing new ways to record worker competencies.
Through these efforts, the president’s team and advisors from the business and higher-ed sectors have reinforced the idea that skills are the currency that ought to have most value in the job market. It’s a different message than the one coming from the preceding Obama administration, which sought to increase the share of Americans with postsecondary degrees. And it’s one that could pressure traditional colleges to change the programs they offer, or at least make a stronger case for their value.
“Certainly it put higher education on notice that we need to look at the ways we can transform higher education to prepare students for work, citizenship and life,” says Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges & Universities.
But experts say that there’s room—and need—for both skills-focused and credentials-focused strategies that prepare people for jobs. And they’re not all convinced that the Trump administration’s talk about supporting college alternatives ultimately matched its policy decisions.
“Raising awareness around these pathways has a certain value,” says Katie Spiker, director of government affairs for the National Skills Coalition, nonprofit advocate for workforce training programs. “The problem is that the policy changes were things that were actually, in some ways, detrimental to workers and students.”
Setting the Skills Agenda
The Trump administration set its sights on job skills rather than credentials in the midst of several economic, technological and political trends.
Before the pandemic, the labor market was leaning in workers’ favor with low unemployment rates, which put pressure on employers to loosen their hiring requirements in order to attract the people they needed to fill jobs. Some companies started to reverse years of “degree inflation” by no longer setting a bachelor’s degree as the minimum education requirement for open positions.
At the same time, companies and policymakers were lamenting over the so-called digital “skills gap” among workers and job seekers who lacked the training required to fill a growing number of technology-related job openings. Industry leaders started talking about “new-collar jobs” that could employ people with particular technical abilities regardless of whether they had advanced credentials.
Our Nation is facing a skills crisis.
—2018 Trump executive order
This premise was the foundation for Trump’s 2018 executive order establishing the President’s National Council for the American Worker and American Workforce Policy Advisory Board, whose members include governors, business executives and the head of the American Association of Community Colleges. The order’s opening line? “Our Nation is facing a skills crisis.”
For President Trump, rhetoric promoting job skills rather than college degrees may have been crafted with his political supporters in mind. The strength of the economy is perennially a top priority for voters, while recently, public perception of higher education has soured and also splintered along partisan lines.
The share of American adults who have a negative view of colleges has been increasing for the past five years, according to Pew Research Center, a change driven by attitudes among people who identify as Republicans. A 2019 Pew survey found that 38 percent of American adults—and 59 percent of Republicans—thought colleges have a negative effect on the country. That same question posed in a 2020 New America survey found 29 percent of respondents—and 39 percent of Republicans—said colleges have a negative effect.
“There is a difference in terms of how you are raised to view post-secondary education,” says Marie Cini, chief strategy officer for ED2WORK, a strategy and research services firm. “Some people are raised: That’s the coin of the realm, you go get a degree, that’s really important. For others, it isn’t so much.”
Promoting college as a path to prosperity might not have resonated with Trump’s base. Education level is a major predictor of white people’s political loyalty, according to data from Gallup, which shows that white people without a college degree “have preferred the GOP to the Democratic Party for most of the past two decades.” Sixty-four percent of white voters without a college degree voting for Trump in 2016, according to Pew. (However, education level is not a major predictor of political loyalty for people who aren’t white.)
As Trump said in 2018 while signing the executive order, his aim was “lifting our forgotten Americans off the sidelines, out of the margins, and back into the workforce.”
Acquiring Job Skills
Conservatives’ skepticism of universities stems partly from ideology, surveys show, but also from practical concerns about whether those institutions effectively prepare students for jobs—a worry also shared by liberals.
A 2018 Pew poll found that 61 percent of Americans think higher education is “going in the wrong direction,” a view held by nearly three-quarters of Republican respondents and a slim majority of Democrat respondents, too. Out of that 61 percent, majorities of Democrats and Republicans cited the notion that “students are not getting the skills they need to succeed in the workplace.”
That’s a perspective many company leaders have, Cini says: “Employers need precision when they’re hiring people. They were using the degree as a proxy for some set of skills and knowledge, but the degree as a proxy for skills and knowledge isn’t holding up any more.”
The skills and knowledge required for most of the in-demand jobs that Trump’s American Workforce Policy Advisory Board highlighted this summer in its “Find Something New” ad campaign can be gained through apprenticeships, vocational schools and associate degree programs. These roles include aerospace engineering and operations technician, computer support specialist, and radiologic technician—all professions that involve facility with specific technologies.
But “job skills” are not only technical, says Scott Pulsipher, president of Western Governors University and a member of the American Workforce Policy Advisory Board. They are also “human skills,” he explains, such as “critical reasoning, problem solving, interpersonal engagement and dealing with ambiguity.”
Just one set of skills isn’t going to take care of you for a lifetime.
—Marie Cini, ED2WORK
As much as employers talk about the digital skills gap, they are also hungry for these human skills. Sixty percent of respondents who do hiring for their companies called “interpersonal skills” very important in assessing job candidates, according to a 2018 survey of more than 1,000 people by Gallup and Strada Education Network, compared to 47 percent for “technical skills” and 16 percent for “academic degree.”
College degree programs are better equipped than “narrow technical training” to strengthen human skills like ethical judgment and decision-making and prepare people to encounter future “unscripted problems,” says Pasquerella of the Association of American Colleges & Universities.
“The Trump administration’s focus on short-term skills and workforce development is a starting point, but it’s not sufficient to meet the demands of the 21st century,” Pasquerella says. “We can’t—in a rapidly changing world, where rapidly changing technology means rapid obsolescence—set people up for failure with short-term training.”
Pulsipher agrees that the “shelf-life” of some technical skills is shortening. But he doesn’t see a four-year, start-to-finish bachelor’s degree as the primary solution. Instead, he says, employers should invest in “upskilling” their workers, and workers need to have pathways to seek new skills as they need them.
Although there will still be demand for degrees, Cini says, the workforce also needs “an ongoing set of educational experiences to help people with skills.”
“We need to visualize a new type of post-secondary education that lasts more over a lifetime, rather than ‘one and done, we have our degree and we’re ready to go,’” she says. “Just one set of skills isn’t going to take care of you for a lifetime.”
Reviewing Trump’s Record
As for how much progress the Trump administration made toward strengthening skills-based training and hiring, that depends on whom you ask.
Trump re-signed the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, and “the White House played a role in shepherding some of those standards and portions with some members of Congress,” says Spiker of the National Skills Coalition. But she also says that the president’s budget proposals have called for cutting investments to several other federal and state workforce programs, and that his support for expanding apprenticeship programs was tied to cuts elsewhere.
“One workforce strategy can’t survive without the workforce ecosystem as a whole,” Spiker says. “They were really pitting different workforce strategies against each other instead of calling for more funding.”
Work is ongoing to carry out Trump’s executive order calling for the use of competency assessments in federal hiring instead of minimum education requirements. The federal Office of Personnel Management has evaluated some 400 government occupations and determined that only about 50 need college degrees, including doctors and lawyers, according to Federal News Network. New assessments are being designed that will measure technical and “general” skills, which include problem-solving and leadership.
“I thought it was an important first step,” Maria Flynn, CEO of Jobs for the Future, says about the executive order. She would like to see it expanded to apply to federal contractors as well. “Assuming the Biden administration continues to push on that, we’ll start to see some real important shifts in the federal hiring process.”
The president’s advisory board has been successful in convening leaders from education, business and government to work across sectors to get more Americans in the workforce, Pulsipher says. He believes one of the group's most promising developments has been its progress toward creating digital learning and employment records that allow individuals to track and communicate their specific job skills to employers. Pilot programs include an IBM blockchain-based system for students studying cyber security at Central New Mexico Community College and Western Governors University; a system that helps Walmart identify which workers to promote; and a system that allows nurses to keep their certifications up-to-date.
Public and corporate interest in job skills will outlast Trump’s administration, experts say, continuing to pressure colleges to adapt. Traditional higher ed institutions will “step up in new ways or become irrelevant,” says Flynn.
One promising example she points out is the new one-year “Edge” program from the University of Virginia. It offers 20 credits in courses that teach “digital and human skills,” including the programming language Python and persuasive writing. It’s designed to serve as a “stepping stone to a degree” for working adults.
Although there has been some resistance to change, Pasquerella says, most colleges have already rejected a “false dichotomy between a liberal education and preparing for work and life.”
“There’s been a shift, certainly, in the mindset of faculty, staff and administrators as to what skills should be learned in college,” she explains. “Our job is to educate in ways that will liberate the mind and engage in this complex world—as if this could be done apart from career preparation.”