A Return to Leadership: Education Priorities for the Biden Administration

Thursday, November 12, 2020
Matt Gandal
President & CEO

Congratulations to President-Elect Biden and Vice President-Elect Harris. Throughout their campaign, they have spoken about returning our country to its place as a leader on the global stage while attending to our very real challenges here at home. Building back better should start with education, recognizing the critical role it must play in an equitable economic recovery. 

Amidst a global pandemic, individuals young and old are facing not only dire health circumstances, but increasing disconnection from the education pathways that can best open the door to long-term economic opportunity. Through no fault of their own, Black, Hispanic, and low-income individuals are experiencing the worst pandemic health, education, and economic impacts. We must not accept this reality. 

Education holds the key to economic revitalization and must play a central role in addressing systemic inequities. The Biden administration has an opportunity to set the tone on this.  Individuals with postsecondary credentials and degrees are significantly more likely to have a job with a family-sustaining wage, have access to affordable health care, and participate in the civic activities that make up the fabric of this great country. But much like with the COVID health crisis, we need a national vision for how education can transform lives and strengthen the workforce that drives the American economy. The moment requires bold leadership and smart federal investments backing it up. 

A renewed federal commitment to education does not mean devaluing state and local leadership; quite the contrary. What’s needed is a new commitment to partnership around clear national goals and outcomes. The federal government should both inspire and listen, incentivize and support; states and local communities will continue to hold the real levers of change. The new administration should learn from the best examples of innovation in the field, and shape its new strategies and investments to scale those innovations and inspire new ones. 

Here are five areas where visionary leadership and continued investment will be critical to our collective success.

1. Set higher education degrees or credentialed training as the expectation for ALL students. Times have changed. A high school diploma is no longer a guarantee of economic success, so states and school systems should not be setting their sights on high school graduation as the culminating success metric. This is especially important in our most under-resourced schools serving large numbers of low-income students and students of color. There are nearly 7,000 high schools in America in which Black, Hispanic, or low-income students have less than a 50 percent chance of enrolling in higher education after graduation. Their futures come down to a flip of a coin. This is tragic and unacceptable. To change the trajectory of these “coin flip” high schools, there must be a greater focus on the most predictive measures of postsecondary enrollment, persistence, and success. The Every Student Succeeds Act helped move some communities to raise their aspirations and hold high schools accountable for student outcomes after graduation, but not nearly enough have done so. The collection and public reporting of disaggregated data on a set of “Momentum Metrics” should be the new normal for every state and district. In addition, we must remove cost as a barrier to postsecondary transitions, especially for our most vulnerable students. Promoting College Promise programs and increasing access to additional aid for those who most need it will help affirm our commitment to postsecondary access and success for all. 

2. Prevent a lost COVID cohort. The anxiety and financial uncertainty caused by COVID-19 has turned the pipeline leak between high school and higher education into a gushing stream. Nearly 30 percent of students indicated they cancelled their postsecondary plans this fall, with Black and Hispanic students reporting even higher numbers. The administration will need to shine a spotlight on this issue, identifying students most at risk of abandoning their postsecondary aspirations, and creating incentives for K-12 and higher education systems to work together to facilitate their seamless transition into postsecondary education and training. This should  include launching a national peer advising corps, and catalyzing states and communities to implement their own home-grown approaches. It will also require further simplifying and supporting outreach around the FAFSA, expanding dual enrollment investments to support students of color and low-income students, and supporting the development of summer academic bridge programs so that students immediately enter into credit-bearing coursework upon matriculation to college. If we’re going to turn the tide on this crisis and prevent the widening of college enrollment gaps, interventions like these will need to be a priority in any future stimulus packages.

3. Invest in career pathways with workforce relevance. As individuals face a shifting labor market as a result of COVID-19, it will be imperative to provide funding for communities to build and scale high-quality career pathways, with a strong emphasis on placing these pathways equitably across schools and expanding access for students of color and those from low-income families. States and communities need incentives and resources to analyze labor market data and scale pathways that lead to in-demand, well-paying jobs. They need encouragement, and sometimes cover, to retire legacy programs that lead to dead-end jobs. And, importantly, they need resources to expand work-based learning opportunities and strengthen career counseling for students.  

4. Prioritize community colleges as an economic lifeline for reskilling displaced adult workers. As millions of Americans remain out of work or seek to shift careers as a result of the pandemic, higher education needs to be a more responsive workforce solution.  Community colleges are a lifeline for reskilling out-of-work adults who need a local, more affordable path to economic opportunity. Community colleges will need leadership and support to better position themselves to serve the adult population, align programs with well-paying career opportunities, and connect their non-credit programs with their degree programs to encourage stackable credentials. This will likely require additional capacity to help individuals navigate re-entry and access to real-time labor market information to make informed choices. Institutions will also need resources to institute data-driven solutions to increase retention and completion, such as guided pathways, proactive advising, and co-requisite remedial courses. While community colleges remain the priority, there is value in engaging regional universities in these efforts as well. 

5. More deeply tie postsecondary attainment to workforce and economic development priorities. A renewed commitment to increasing postsecondary attainment is at the heart of a successful and equitable economic recovery strategy in the months and years ahead. Nearly every state in the country has set a statewide postsecondary attainment goal, recognizing that increasing the percentage of people with high quality credentials and degrees will pay great dividends. It’s now time for the federal government to back states up with incentives and resources to help meet those goals, and to push for states and communities to more coherently link them to job creation and employment support for people of color and low-income individuals.

Over the next few weeks and months, ESG will dig into these and other issues in greater depth on our blog. We hope that our reflections will be helpful to the new administration as well as our national, state, and local partners as they continue to move their work forward. With strong leadership setting the tone, we can collectively achieve more equitable educational and economic opportunities for all Americans. 

This post is also published on ESG’s Medium account