Why States Need Higher Ed Reform to Meet Workforce Needs

It’s no secret that our higher education system has room to improve. Too few students make it to graduation day, and those who do are often ill-equipped to meet the demands of a 21st century labor market. With reauthorization of the Higher Education Act on the horizon, the time is ripe to dig into how we can better align our higher education system to meet America’s workforce needs.

On Thursday, September 28th, Third Way and the Bipartisan Policy Center held a candid conversation about why state leaders need both institutions and the federal government to do more to make sure students who start a postsecondary program finish with the skills they need to compete in today’s workforce.

The event kicked off with a brief Q&A with Western Governors University President Scott Pulsipher, moderated by Former Governor Jim Douglas (R-VT). President Pulsipher made the case for a competency-based approach to higher education given what he sees is an enormous gap in students being workforce-ready following college. Pulsipher noted that what's being taught today doesn’t always link well to success in the workforce. Asking, “If we’re going to invest that kind of money, does it actually lead to an opportunity?”

Lanae Erickson Hatalsky, Third Way’s Vice President for Social Policy and Politics Program, served as the moderator for a discussion with former Governor Mike Beebe (D-AR), former Governor Steve Beshear (D-KY), and former Governor Linda Lingle (R-HI), who each have firsthand first hand insight into what changes are needed to better align higher education with workforce needs.

During the conversation, Lanae asked each panelist what their biggest frustration was as a governor with the current higher education system. The question got a chuckle from the panelists, as Governor Lingle answered, “I think that just getting state funded universities to take responsibility for graduation rates. It sounds simple, straightforward but I’m not certain before my first conversation with the head of our higher education system [in Hawaii] that they really focused on and it’s because the financial incentives aren’t really there to focus on it.” Governor Beebe agreed with Governor Lingle, saying that “if you base your rewards on a financial reward than you’re going to effectuate the kind of behavioral change and policy change in colleges and universities that you want.”

Referring back to Governor Douglas and President Pulsipher’s earlier conversation, Governor Beebe also said, “It’s pretty hard to get traditionalist, traditional higher education folks whether they be administrators, professors or the board of trustees, it’s hard to get them to change to a new model and it’s incremental.” Governor Beshear echoed his colleagues’ comments. The sentiment was reiterated throughout the rest of the discussion.

The conversation moved to how the lack of information schools provide on their outcomes—like what percent of Pell students graduate from a school—makes it difficult for consumers to understand what school is best for them. Governor Beebe made this point by saying, “You almost have to be a detective and listen to what [the universities] don’t say.”

Third Way and the Bipartisan Policy Center were grateful for the time that President Pulsipher and former Governors Douglas, Beebe, Beshear and Lingle gave to provide an on-the-ground and non-federal perspective. Stay tuned for future events, as Third Way and the Bipartisan Policy Center look to continue conversations around how to improve our higher education system so that it best works for the students they serve.

Event Details



September 28, 2017

1:00 PM to 2:30 PM


Top of the Hill Banquet & Conference Center

1 Constitution Ave NE

Washington, D.C. - 20002


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