Designing Learning Circles to Support Economic Mobility: Our Initial Findings

At Peer 2 Peer University (P2PU), we are a grassroots network of people who believe that knowledge should be freely shared and learning is best done with others. We’re exploring ways to expand our impact in 2023 and beyond. We want to bring you – our community – along for the journey. This is the first in a series of blog posts that will share areas we’re investigating, what we’re learning, and the ideas it’s sparking for us. And we want to hear from you! Email us your questions, comments, ideas, and feedback at

Our work at P2PU has an international scope, with partners in Africa, Europe, and North America. In the United States, we have built our model around public libraries because they share our belief in the importance of accessible, equitable, open-ended, user-centered learning. Public libraries provide accessible space, technology, and helpful staff who support community members’ information and learning needs. P2PU provides a plug-and-play model for libraries to build new programs tailored specifically to their community members’ learning dreams. 

While this open platform model has worked well, we have been curious about doing more. What big social problems do we see in the U.S. that P2PU might want to help solve? In this era of dramatic social change, where do we want our organization to take a more active role in making an impact? What if we built content offerings focused on a specific topic that could be used widely by all partners? What if we partnered with organizations beyond public libraries? 

Many learning circle participants join our programs in order to advance their careers or find new jobs, and yet we know that on a structural level, there are many barriers that prevent U.S. residents from having equal opportunity in the workplace. We wanted to further investigate the ways that P2PU can contribute to economic opportunity. As an organization dedicated to open knowledge, we want to share what we learned with all of you. 

What does the data tell us about economic mobility in the United States? 

Here is what we have learned: 

  • Four-year college degrees help, but degrees alone are often not enough. The nonprofit Opportunity@Work says there are two distinct labor markets in the United States: one for those with four-year college degrees and one for those without. Without a four-year degree, prospects for upward economic mobility in the U.S. are limited. The wage gap between workers with and without four-year degrees has grown over the past four decades. On average, workers with a high-school degree or GED but no four-year degree change jobs more often and are more likely to make less money after a job change than before. Black and Latina women earn less than white women, and all three groups earn less than white men. Even at the same education level, women of color earn significantly less than their white male counterparts. This shows that degree completion alone is often not enough to overcome racism, sexism, and other forms of bias and discrimination in the workforce. 
  • STEM professions can provide a pathway to economic security, but current disparities leave people out. STEM jobs – science, technology, engineering, and math – are often growing professions that pay well. However, the racial and gender disparities that show up in other areas of the workforce are also represented in STEM – both in current workers and in the educational pipeline toward these roles.

What do workers say about their goals and experiences in the workforce? They want more skills, more support, and less bias. 

Racism, sexism, and other structural forms of discrimination and bias limit people from reaching their full potential in the workforce. When understanding these issues, it’s essential to hear from workers themselves about their wants, needs, dreams, and challenges. 

While economic data appears to show a strong job market, many Americans are not feeling it. Job seekers report many barriers to finding a job, the top two being 1) lack of available jobs and 2) the need for more or different skills, credentials, or education. Women and people of color, especially Asian Americans, are more likely to report a mismatch between their experience and employers’ requirements. 

Research shows that employees of color in frontline worker roles face many barriers to moving up the ladder. While motivated to advance, they lack opportunities for promotion. While they report having mentors, a majority of BIPOC frontline workers report having no sponsors to proactively support their drive toward advancement. Employees of color in frontline roles describe feeling ignored and marginalized, many without a sense of belonging or inclusion at their jobs. 

Many Leverage Points Exist to Improve the Economic Well-being of People in the U.S. 

With no single solution currently available to solve the massive challenge of economic inequality in this country, organizations across sectors focus on a variety of leverage points to help people in their communities access better financial and life outcomes. These leverage points include: 

  • Creating and using tools that help people better access safety net benefits and tax credits due to them, which maximizes income in the short term.
  • Expanding options for wrap-around supports that help workers succeed, such as English language learning, remedial education, career counseling, mental health services, financial planning, housing, and transportation.
  • Supporting youth and young adults from groups underrepresented in STEM to pursue degrees and careers in those fields. 
  • Connecting employers with skilled workers – including and even especially those without higher education degrees. 
  • Helping workers better navigate the job market. 
  • Supporting business owners and organizational leaders to adopt equitable employment practices that improve workers’ careers and economic trajectories. 
  • Providing social capital that bridges economic classes as part of economic support programs. 
  • Implementing public policies that support stronger income security and wealth accumulation, particularly for Black Americans. 

What Works? Collaboration, Community, Wrap-Around Support, and Data

Much is known about what works to support people in connecting to well-paying jobs, advancing their careers, building wealth, and gaining economic mobility. The America Forward initiative analyzed successful programs and found common themes in what works to support adults and families to pursue their goals, including financial security, amidst intergenerational poverty and other systemic barriers. Successful policies and programs:

  • Recognize that people are the experts on their own lives,
  • Examine the whole ecosystem from the perspective of the person seeking services,
  • Use technology while stressing the human touch,
  • Partner across sectors, and 
  • Use data to track results and innovate. 

Additional research shows that place matters – what works in one place may not work in another. Communication between employers, workers, and trainers is also essential to ensuring that workforce development programs tackle the right problems.

We found many examples of inspiring collaborations already in motion. At the national level, several major initiatives have been launched to create stronger pathways for people to find jobs and career pathways that allow them to build wealth over time, such as Opportunity@Work’s STARs initiative, OneTen: Creating 1 million jobs for Black Talent, the Rework America Alliance, and Grow With Google. The Biden Administration’s Talent Pipeline Challenge calls on employers, education and training providers, states, local, Tribal, and territorial governments, and philanthropic organizations nationwide to make tangible commitments that support equitable workforce development in infrastructure. National membership and advocacy organizations have initiatives designed to support members’ work on the ground, such as: the National League of Cities Equitable Economic Mobility Initiative, the National Association of Counties Economic Mobility Leadership Network, and the Urban Libraries Council Economic Opportunity Action Team

What’s Next? 

To learn more about how these trends show up in your community, visit these resources:

This overview is just the beginning of P2PU’s dive into this topic. We have been interviewing people from the library and workforce development field, funders who observe lessons learned across many programs, and job seekers themselves to gain direct perspectives on this topic. We’ll be sharing more in a future post about the insights from those conversations. 

For now, we want to hear from you! Let us know your thoughts at

  • What stood out to you or surprised you in this research? 
  • What promising approaches are you seeing or using in your community? 
  • How do you think P2PU could best play a role in creating greater economic opportunity in the U.S.? 

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