The following article is from the Houston Chronicle.

By Syed Kazmi

Houston’s job market is finally working again – but not for everyone.

Underserved students – mostly minority, low-income, first-generation and those over 25 – still face barriers to high-quality post-secondary educational options that provide a path to a living wage. The Mayoral Task Force on Equity emphasized that while Houston is the second most-prosperous city in the United States and the fifth fastest-growing, we are only the 64th most economically inclusive. This contrast is closely linked to the unique challenges that underserved populations face getting into post-secondary education and staying in.

For example, low-income college students are more likely than higher-income students to work full time while in post-secondary education and are “more vulnerable to experiencing declining grades” when they work more than 40 hours per week. Older students – often with children of their own – require scheduling flexibility to meet all their obligations. And despite adults over 25 making up nearly 40 percent of our higher education population, institutions aren’t modeling courses with them in mind.

When underserved populations can’t access quality education and training options, that leaves Houston employers in key industries like manufacturing and health care facing severe skills gaps. By 2020, 65 percent of all jobs will require some other education beyond high school. To fill these jobs, degree-granting programs will need to attract, train and graduate millions of American adults – from different types of economic backgrounds and stages of life.

To ensure our students are prepared for success in life and our employers have the workers they need, we must recognize these barriers to higher education — barriers that keep underserved populations from completing their education, receiving a professional certification and entering the job market — where they exist and strive to break them down. And if we can unlock the full potential of the workforce, small investments to break down these barriers can and will pay huge dividends to our economy.

These investments must start by recognizing the reasons why traditional higher education hasn’t worked for everyone. While tuition has skyrocketed at public and private four-year colleges, low-income students still lack access to strong financial safety nets — leaving them vulnerable to falling behind on school payments if they encounter common dilemmas that they can’t afford to ignore, like a flat tire or a sick child.

It’s clear we need an affordable, alternative path to help non-traditional students overcome obstacles to completing their education and entering the workforce.

At Altierus Bissonnet, our average student is in his or her 20s, the first person in the family to attend college, and a single parent – leaving the student with significant financial and personal responsibilities beyond simply completing classes. Understanding our students juggle complicated lives, we offer “wraparound” support services and other financial resources to help them through the rough spots. Our emergency grants program provides small cash grants to our students to cover unexpected crises or shortfalls that might otherwise cause the student to drop out, like expenses for utilities, child care or course materials.

There is growing evidence that such programs have a lasting impact on underserved students: One study found that emergency funding, when paired with intensive advising, tripled associate degree completion rates.

Also vital to success in the 21st century workplace are professional skills, including the ability to relate ideas, work in teams, and problem solve. According to LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner, who presides over a trove of data revealing who is being hired and why, these skills are also the source of the country’s biggest skills gaps. We have seen resume development workshops, externships and interview coaching all help to bridge those divides.

Breaking down these barriers won’t happen overnight, and those of us in higher education need to meet students where they are, a grant or one-on-one meeting at a time. But we can’t do it alone. We need businesses to follow the example of major companies like Chevron Phillips Chemical, Exxon Mobil and Dow Chemical — which have made major investments in workforce training here in Houston — deepening their commitments to on-the-job training and providing well-paying jobs to those who need them most.

If we work together to break down these barriers, ensuring that all students entering any kind of post-secondary education have what they need to obtain a degree and a middle-class job, we can build an economy that is more equitable and provides our local businesses with the skilled workers they need to succeed in the 21st century economy.

Kazmi is the campus director of Altierus Bissonnet.