Accelerate Recovery: States Innovating with CARES Act Dollars

Tuesday, June 30, 2020
Matt Gandal
President & CEO

The economic destruction and severe educational disruption caused by COVID-19 will have ramifications for years to come. Many lives and many people’s futures are at risk. The actions we take in the months ahead to reposition education systems to serve as engines of recovery will determine how significant a setback this crisis becomes, and whether opportunity and achievement gaps will widen or close.

State and local leaders have a real chance to turn this crisis into an opportunity to drive new approaches to education, and I don’t just mean shifts to distance learning. If the last recession taught us anything, it was that a high school diploma does not hold strong enough currency in the job market; those who had high-quality postsecondary credentials recovered much sooner than those who did not. If governors and mayors want their education systems to be part of the solution to our current recession, they will need to take dramatic new steps to shore up leaks in the K-12 to postsecondary pipeline and show real determination in aligning programs and credentials with changing industry demands.

I was lucky enough to have an inside view of how educational leaders were able to drive ambitious changes to their systems during my time at the U.S. Department of Education during the last economic recovery. Similar to the current crisis, Congress in 2009 passed stimulus legislation to provide much needed financial relief and investment. Most of the money for education flowed to states, localities and higher education institutions through the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund, which was largely formula funded. The Obama Administration also put a substantial amount of the federal stimulus money—$5 billion—into incentive grants to encourage educational innovation.

It was remarkable to watch how those discretionary grant programs, both Race to the Top and I3 grants, provided opportunities for state and local leaders to raise expectations for students, dramatically improve academic growth, increase postsecondary enrollment and success, and perhaps most importantly, close equity gaps in K-12 and higher education. The dollars mattered a lot. But without bold leadership at the state and local levels, the infusion of resources wouldn’t have led to real changes.

Today, we are once again confronted with a crisis that will require bold leadership and new mental models to deliver positive results. And we again have an infusion of federal resources designed to help shore up state and local budgets. Yet while the current Administration has put some of the CARES Act money aside for discretionary grants, including an exciting new opportunity for building career pathways, it’s a far smaller amount than in 2009. This means that states and communities that want to use CARES Act resources to drive innovation and change will need to bring those ideas to the table themselves, and have the resolve to prioritize resources accordingly. For instance, half of surveyed college presidents believe their institution will need to make transformative changes to respond to the pandemic. In particular, leaders will need to prioritize spending to support strategies, programs and services that have the greatest opportunity for impact, especially in terms of putting Black, Hispanic, and low-income individuals on a path to economic mobility

As I have followed announcements about how states and institutions intend to leverage federal stimulus dollars, I have been emboldened by the following investments, and I hope to see many more in this vein.

Accelerating Postsecondary Transitions

Recognizing that more than a third of graduating high school seniors in 2020 had yet to demonstrate college, career, or military readiness, Texas has announced the creation of a summer bridge program that will enable those students to seamlessly enroll in postsecondary education without the need for remediation. Rather than push more students to demonstrate college readiness through assessments, the state has created Texas College Bridge—an online, self-paced English and mathematics course that is free for any student that has yet to demonstrate readiness. If the student passes the course, they will not be required to take a placement exam. Each student will also be paired with an advisor to support postsecondary and career exploration and make the transition into a postsecondary institution seamless. Students that complete the Bridge program are eligible for scholarship funds and districts receive points in the state’s high school accountability system.

Other communities have doubled-down on dual enrollment as a strategy for building postsecondary momentum so that students do not view high school graduation their last educational stop. For instance, Northern Virginia Community College is using CARES Act resources to offer free dual enrollment courses this summer, targeting vulnerable student populations and prioritizing courses in in-demand career pathways. This is a strategy that will both keep students engaged through the summer and give them a leg up on credit accumulation toward a postsecondary credential of value.

Prioritizing High-Value Credentials

In a time when many families are dealing with tightened personal finances, it is critical to ensure that those pursuing higher education do not waste money on credentials that do not hold labor market value and lead to good jobs. Several states plan to use their federal funds to not only help people get back to work quickly, but to steer them to shorter-term education and training opportunities that offer real labor market value. Florida has announced its intention to take a cross-sector approach to identifying new jobs, job functions, and accelerated training programs to meet the identified labor market demands. The state plans to use federal funds to increase the capacity of “rapid credentialing” programs at Florida College System institutions, offering opportunities for students to earn in-demand technical and industry certifications, which can articulate into college credit, in 18 weeks or less.

Virginia is investing in its community college system to support last-dollar scholarships for displaced adults who enroll in stackable credential programs leading to jobs in targeted industry sectors. The state also plans to allocate funds to its five higher education centers, which provide access to college degrees and job training for in-demand careers located in parts of the Commonwealth with fewer higher education institutional resources. Louisiana will also prioritize scholarships for shorter-term credentials aligned to the state’s top job needs.

Upskilling Adults

As displaced workers look to return to work, many will seek a competitive edge by enrolling in higher education to upskill. Indiana’s Rapid Recovery initiative is an effort to accelerate statewide economic recovery by offering comprehensive support for individuals to secure education and training, skill and career coaching, and access to quality jobs. Job seekers can learn about different job, education, and training opportunities through an online resource hub, though which they can receive one-on-one advising and network support to navigate their options. The initiative also includes weekly reports analyzing state and national labor market data, allowing consumers to follow the trends in real time and adapt their approach. 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.

It will take leadership and creativity from all sectors to create the right conditions for an equitable economic recovery, particularly when it comes to making effective use of scarce funds.  It’s still early and we hope to see more examples emerge. We encourage readers to send examples our way so that we can highlight them in this blog series, on webinars, and through our other communication channels.

A final thought on this. Public resources are important but they do not always lend themselves to creative uses. Philanthropy also has a significant role to play in spurring innovation during a recovery. Many foundations drafted off of Race to the Top and other federal investments in the early 2010s to help shape the reforms at the state and local levels and more rapidly bring change to scale. Given the circumstances we find ourselves in today, philanthropy has an even more important role to play. In a future post, I intend to offer additional thoughts on how foundations can inspire ambitious agendas across the education to employment continuum and ensure that our more vulnerable populations are able to achieve greater economic mobility.