You’ve heard it before: college isn’t for everyone. People who say that often have a pretty narrow definition of “college”, but in reality, postsecondary credentials focus on a wide array of skills and knowledge, come from richly varied types of institutions, and have vastly differing labor market purposes and economic returns. Given this variety, it’s understandable that there’s little clarity about the purpose of higher education and whether or not postsecondary study is the right decision for a given individual. Peter Thiel, who infamously offered to pay young people not to go to college, thinks the system sells itself mainly as an insurance policy but is actually a tournament “in which the intensity of the competition is what somehow validates the tournament.” He points out that confusion about the purpose of college prevents us from designing a system that produces better outcomes for any one purpose.

We often talk about college as an investment decision, that a given program will give a person the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in the labor market. Particularly in two-year college systems, there is an emphasis on avoiding enrolling students in programs without a strong return on investment. Limited resources for these colleges and competing priorities can create incentives for a narrow focus on skills for occupations that seem to be growing. While a combination of real-time job opening data and labor market projections can help target programmatic offerings, unpredictable innovations and macroeconomic trends still cause a lot of uncertainty. “[T]he economy bounces all over the place in terms of jobs, particularly for these jobs that we hear are ’hot’ all the time, like tech jobs,” Peter Cappelli explains in an interview with The Atlantic. “The reason that they’re hot is precisely because you can’t predict them.” This is more problematic now than it used to be, because the role of employers in training employees has shifted. Here’s Cappelli:

A few generations ago the employers used to look for smart or adaptable kids on college campuses with general skills. They would convert them to what they wanted inside the company and they would retrain them and they’d get different skills. They’re not doing that now. They’re just expecting that the kids will show up with the skills that the employer needs when the employer needs them.

If we design educational pathways that focus a student too specifically on one career or occupation, we risk developing parallel systems of higher education for students based on socioeconomic background: adaptable skills for the affluent to compete in an ever-changing knowledge economy, and narrow skills for low- and moderate-income students to get a technical job right now. By reducing investment in public education and tying resources to immediate labor market outcomes, we risk pushing colleges into credentialing students with targeted sets of skills that may or may not have much value ten years from now.

How can we prepare students who do not have the luxury of exploration—who need the economic boost of a credential, and as soon as possible, while still making sure their education has long-term value? How can we make sure students are developing the skills they will need to compete in an unpredictable future labor market?

To start, we can make sure that students are actually making their own well-informed choices about what their educational path will be. We can work to ensure that the options a young person has are not limited by their family income by better aligning postsecondary programs (from short-term credentials, to two-year degrees, to four-year degrees and beyond), and by advocating for college affordability, effective financial aid policies, and better support systems for low-income students. We can work to make sure that extracurricular participation and opportunities for job experience are not dependent on family income.

There is no reason not to embed adaptable skill development into technical, career-oriented programs. The way students learn, and the type of thinking they are familiar with, has a huge impact on their preparedness for jobs and future education. A great example of this comes from Patrick Henry Community College (PHCC) in Martinsville, Virginia, where students in all programs and disciplines are taught using cooperative learning. This pedagogical method emphasizes active learning where students are interdependent and accountable. The pedagogy, regardless of curriculum, is a form of skills development, with students increasing their capacity for critical thinking and teamwork.

I spoke with Greg Hodges, PHCC’s Dean of Academic Success and College Transfer, about how cooperative learning can prevent colleges from making implicit judgements about students’ capabilities or what type of work they are suitable for. He told me that community college faculty and staff are hungry for better pedagogical strategies; traditional approaches aren’t sufficient for the learning challenges many low-income students who haven’t received a strong education face. When faculty are just given the syllabus and materials and not trained to teach, they fall back on the model of their own education, but often that style does not suit a wide range of student learning styles. Cooperative learning “infuses in students the ability to learn regardless of the discipline,” Hodges says, even for the students who come to PHCC for short-term training. Those problem-solving and teamwork skills are valued by employers, but students also are prepared for more complex and rigorous educational programs.

The stakes, and the pressure, could not be higher. “Community college faculty are being asked to keep the middle class alive,” according to Hodges. The pressure to quickly implement reforms does not leave colleges with much time to prepare for unintended effects on vulnerable student populations. While there is some awareness of those effects, especially right now as the nuances of structural racism are reaching public consciousness, college faculty and staff are afraid to broach the subject and may feel there is little they can do. Shrinking levels of investment in public education and policies that do not adequately support reform implementation are central to the problem, PHCC’s focus on engaging pedagogy offers some hope: previously large achievement gaps along lines of race and income in gateway English and developmental math have narrowed as the college has expanded cooperative learning.

PHCC was recognized this year by Achieving the Dream with the Leah Meyer Austin Award; the college created the Southern Center for Active Learning Excellence to train other community college faculty in cooperative learning techniques.