Accelerate Recovery: Keep the Attainment Agenda Front & Center

Thursday, May 21, 2020
Annie Phillips

The massive economic disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically altered lives and livelihoods. This pandemic has put a spotlight on the vulnerability of low-skilled, non-credentialed workers, with less-educated people losing work at three times the rate of those with college degrees.

In the economic recovery that lies ahead, equipping individuals with postsecondary credentials will be critically important —even as states and higher education institutions face tremendous financial and logistical stress. 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.

Last week, ESG and the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (SHEEO) virtually gathered leaders from seven states across the country (CA, IN, LA, MI, NJ, NC, and TN) for the second convening of the Attainment Academy. Although nearly every aspect of postsecondary education looks different now than it did when the Attainment Academy cohort began working together in October 2019, last week’s conversations revealed that the core elements of the higher education attainment agenda remain unchanged—and in fact, are more urgent now than ever before. To move the needle on postsecondary attainment in this challenging time, leaders must:

– Keep equity at the heart of all attainment strategies

– Engage and support adult learners

– Prioritize robust student financial assistance

Below is a look at how Attainment Academy states are doubling down—including through strategic leverage of their CARES Act funds—on their commitment to three core tenets of improving higher education attainment for economic recovery.

Keep equity at the heart of all attainment strategies.

The end goal of the attainment agenda is to increase economic opportunity and inclusion for all. This means that a commitment to increasing postsecondary attainment overall necessitates a targeted focus on closing gaps in attainment among different populations. The pandemic has highlighted the fact that an unwavering commitment to equity must drive attainment efforts. People of color and low-income individuals have been hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic—both in terms of health and economic impact—increasing the urgency of focused efforts to help these individuals access and succeed in higher education.

Attainment Academy leaders are focusing their efforts to support vulnerable populations in their postsecondary efforts. Tennessee, for example, plans to use some of its CARES Act funds to create and expand dual enrollment opportunities with a specific focus on students who, due to financial, academic, or other reasons, may not consider college as an option.

In addition to encouraging prospective students, it’s important that states not lose sight of enrolled students. Several states are developing communications plans to reach out to those at risk of not returning to school. An institution in Louisiana is repurposing staff to provide higher-touch persistence support to students, setting up a call center to connect with them. Creative, deliberate efforts to reach historically underserved populations need to be at the heart of state attainment strategies if a post-COVID economic recovery is to succeed for all.

Engage and support adult learners.

As millions of people look to get back to work, many will determine that they need additional education or training and return to higher education. Institutions need to be prepared to serve an influx of adult learners as well as traditional students. During last week’s Attainment Academy convening, states discussed their plans to better accommodate these students through accelerated, responsive programming aligned with the labor market. For example, Indiana’s Rapid Recovery effort includes weekly reports on state and national labor market data, allowing consumers to follow the trends in real time. Using this data, institutions like Ivy Tech Community College are identifying emerging priority fields and associated credentials to match returning adults with promising pathways back to employment. Similarly, New Jersey is utilizing their labor market information to adjust their outreach and messaging to adults, focusing on a given credential’s return in the labor market outcomes. In both of these states, collaboration across higher education and labor departments has been essential to better target and support those displaced by COVID-19.

States are also taking steps to ease the financial burden of re-engaging in higher education on adults in these tight financial times. Michigan is prioritizing adult learners through such efforts as the Futures for Frontliners initiative, a tuition-free pathway to college or a technical certificate for essential workers who do not have a college degree. Louisiana is similarly committing to financial support for adult learners through an expansion of Complete Louisiana, an initiative to encourage adults who have not completed their degree to return to school. This May, the University System of Louisiana announced a 45 percent tuition decrease for those in the program as an effort to support and keep them engaged through the crisis.

Prioritize robust student financial assistance.

In challenging economic times, the cost of higher education may prove to be an especially large barrier to many students. In an effort to mitigate this challenge, Attainment Academy states are rightly prioritizing their efforts to increase the number of students completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Tennessee, a perennial national leader in FAFSA completion rates, has pivoted its strategy and found effective ways to virtually connect with students and support them in completing the form. By leaning in to meet students where they are—including offering resources through text and chat—the state has maintained momentum and its high FAFSA completion rate; as of May 8, Tennessee tops the nation with 75.2 percent seniors having completed the FAFSA, putting the state on pace to meet or surpass its 80 percent completion rate from last year even as nationwide completion rates are down 2.3 percentage points. North Carolina is also prioritizing FAFSA completion by rolling out a public information campaign to raise awareness of its importance, as well as exploring the possibility of innovative, high-impact, short-term strategies such as coordinating tax filing with FAFSA completion and leveraging the NC College Advising Corps for on-the-ground support.

Institutions can also take the lead in reaching current students who have not completed the FAFSA but would benefit from doing so. Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana is distributing emergency CARES funds to students based upon their expected need as determined by the FAFSA, a practice that encourages eligible students who had not completed the form to do so in order to access another important source of financial support.

Postsecondary attainment will be a critical piece of the long-term economic recovery, but it’s important to remember that meaningful progress in increasing attainment cannot be achieved through the efforts of a single group. State, legislative, institutional, K-12, and third-party leaders must be rowing in the same direction and embracing shared strategies in pursuit of a common goal. With strapped resources and tight budgets resulting from the pandemic, collective ownership and creative teamwork will be more necessary than ever. Though the exact players will differ from state to state, all states will need to keep their cross-sector teams active and engaged—as Attainment Academy states are doing—as they develop legislative asks and long-term strategies to increase postsecondary attainment for all.