As the leader of an organization with a deep focus on closing equity gaps and opening up pathways to economic opportunity, the COVID-19 crisis gives me substantial heartburn. It also gives me hope.
First, the heartburn. The impact of COVID-19 on education and the economy is already widespread and unlike anything we’ve seen in our lifetimes. Some projections suggest that 37 million jobs may be at risk in the United States, with 95% of those coming in low-wage occupations. In March alone, we saw a reduction of nearly 1 million low-wage jobs across the country (see graph below). Job losses and unemployment have only continued to grow in the weeks since.
The crisis and related recession stand to be a generational setback for the educational equity gains we have made as a country since 2008. Already there is early evidence that COVID-19 is having an outsized impact on low-income communities and communities of color. The threat of dramatic setbacks for disadvantaged populations is frighteningly real. In the long run—without dramatic intervention—millions of Americans are likely to face significant hurdles that limit economic mobility.
At the same time, there are massive disruptions in teaching and learning across K-12 and higher education as nearly every district and higher education institution has closed down campuses and scrambled to institute distance learning. All are addressing similar challenges around student access to technology, educator readiness to move to online instruction, and vexing issues around grading, promotion and credit transfer for which there is no playbook. And none of this even considers the social and emotional drain that students and families face as they contend with caring for family members, losing employment opportunities, and/or securing food and shelter.
What gives me hope? That a significant number of leaders will show the determination and vision during this crisis to prioritize education so it acts as an accelerant in the economic recovery and lifts up our most vulnerable populations. I see that type of leadership on display right now with the health crisis as governors from states as geographically and politically diverse as New York, Ohio, and California have stepped up to lead their citizens down a difficult but necessary path during a highly uncertain time.
I see a similar moment coming in education. There are a range of critical health, social/emotional, and continuity of learning challenges that state and local education officials are currently prioritizing. That work must continue to take center stage. It is not too early, however, to look around the corner and plan for what’s coming next. Those who are able to address the immediate crisis while also inspiring new, more nimble, and innovative approaches to educational pathways will set their communities up for short- and long-term success. It will be a real test of leadership.
While the scale of disruption in our country is unprecedented, we are not in completely uncharted territory. The 2008 recession and subsequent recovery brought to light important trends worth bearing in mind as we plot a course for the future. Two are worth pointing out here because they highlight the importance of a renewed commitment to pathways and attainment work in the service of economic mobility:
Those without postsecondary education and training get left further behind. Through the 2008 recession, job growth was flat for individuals with a BA or higher, while nearly 6 million individuals with a high school diploma or less lost their jobs. This split was even more severe through the recovery, as nearly all new jobs created during that period required some postsecondary education or training. Given equity gaps in postsecondary attainment rates among different populations, this meant that significant numbers of Black, Hispanic, and low-income individuals were left behind as the economy recovered.
Education budget cuts have lasting inequitable effects on students and families. K-12 and higher education investment makes up a large portion of state discretionary budgets. Consequently, during recessionary times, education—especially higher education—often bears the brunt of the cuts. Despite the three federal stimulus bills to date, the long-term loss of state revenue as a result of COVID-19 will likely lead to a reduction in education spending. In the previous recession, the decline of state appropriations led to significant increases in tuition across higher education. That contributed to decreases in postsecondary enrollment—especially among students of color and low-income students—as well as an overall increase in student debt burden, which remains heavy to this day.
A final, optimistic lesson from the previous recession and recovery is that visionary leaders can accelerate recovery by positioning their education systems to be engines of innovation and change. In the face of massive headwinds, there were a collection of governors, K-12, and higher education leaders that set their states, districts, and institutions on a path to improvement a decade ago. We are still seeing the fruits of that labor in many parts of the country today. Progress is possible, even in times of crisis.
Here are five areas where visionary leadership and continued investment will be critical to our collective success.
1. Positioning Postsecondary Attainment as a Recovery Strategy: Given the increased importance of postsecondary credentials during an economic recovery, states and communities that have set attainment goals should keep their foot on the gas and accelerate efforts to align credentials with the changing labor market. Now is not the time to put postsecondary attainment on the back burner. We must reorient that work to be attentive to the immediate credentialing needs of displaced youth and adults while maintaining a long-term commitment to advancing overall attainment and closing equity gaps.
2. Prioritizing High-Value Pathways and Credentials: Now, more than ever, quality and return on investment must reign supreme as states and communities prioritize pathways and programs that lead to high-value credentials. The dramatic shifting of labor markets will be challenging to interpret and will require a renewed commitment to data analytics by both K-12 and higher education. Programs that lead to postsecondary credentials that offer real value in the evolving job market should be prioritized. And facing scarcity of resources, leaders in both sectors will need the fortitude to phase out or close down programs that don’t purposefully prepare people for viable careers.
3. Addressing Gaps in High School to Postsecondary Transitions: Nearly two million students leave high school each year and do not continue into higher education or training. This pipeline leak may become a gushing stream in the period ahead as K-12 and higher education sectors turn their attention inward to address their own immediate needs, significantly reducing attention to that critical handoff. Colleges, K-12 school systems, and community-based organizations that support college access and success will need to vastly expand their efforts and pay special attention to students of color, first generation students, and those from low-income families.
4. Preparing to Serve the Influx of Unemployed: It is unclear exactly how the COVID-19 health crisis will influence college enrollment decisions this fall, but it is a pretty sure bet that a sizeable number of the newly unemployed will eventually choose to return to college to upskill. While the timing of that enrollment surge may be harder to predict, postsecondary institutions—community colleges in particular—need to be prepared to serve these adult students. In a COVID-19-influenced world, it also appears that many more adult learners will gravitate toward online programs. This will mean having high-quality accelerated programs that are responsive to the changing labor market, and dramatically altering the models of delivery and support to address the needs of these adult learners.
5. Connecting Classrooms to Real-World Work: Much progress has recently been made in engaging employers in designing education pathways that are responsive to their needs and offering work-based learning opportunities, like apprenticeships and internships, to expose students to careers. Employers will likely take a much more conservative posture during the recovery, making this level of engagement exponentially more difficult. This will put a premium on aligning programs with emerging economic needs. It will also require innovative approaches to work-based learning that enable meaningful student experiences while lightening the expected commitment of employers.
Over the next few weeks and months, ESG will dig into these and other issues in greater depth on our blog, upcoming webinars, and via social media (#AccelerateRecovery). We hope that our reflections will be helpful to our national, state, and local partners as they continue to move their work forward. We don’t know when the pandemic will end, but we do know that its impact on students and families will be felt for years to come. We must work together to ensure that we can accelerate recovery for our country and our most vulnerable populations. Stay safe and stay strong.