Accelerating Recovery: Where Are We Now?

Tuesday, March 15, 2022
Matt Gandal
President & CEO

Two years ago this month, the world as we knew it changed. As schools and economies shuttered across the globe in response to the coronavirus pandemic, it quickly became clear that the impacts of this crisis would reverberate for years to come. 

Sure enough, two years later, we are still grappling with the challenges brought on by the virus and its ripple effects on a daily basis. Fatigue and capacity strains have pushed classroom educators, district leaders, higher education practitioners, and state policymakers to the brink as they’ve endured two years of crisis management, doing their best to serve students while also preventing viral spread. Steep dropoffs in higher education enrollment and persistence threaten to put economic mobility out of reach for too many students, particularly those of color or from low-income families. And a K-shaped recovery could widen existing inequalities between the haves and the have-nots. 

We are all exhausted; yet today, as the tide slowly starts to turn, I feel more hope than despair. After massive disruptions, college applications are increasing once again. Postsecondary completion rates are rising, particularly for Americans of color and those over the age of 25. The infusion of federal stimulus dollars into our schools and colleges presents a potentially transformative opportunity; but only if we can rise to the challenge and invest not only in short-term interventions but longer-term, more sustainable changes that will cement our education system as the driver of equitable economic opportunity and mobility in this country. 

As the pandemic set in two years ago, I wrote about the heartburn and the hope that I felt as we began to learn to live in our new reality and put forth five key areas I believed would be critical for leaders to prioritize. Today, I want to highlight some of the “big bets” we at ESG are making that I believe have the potential to accelerate equitable recovery and transform our education and workforce systems for the better. 

Accelerate pathways to postsecondary credentials. The pandemic has highlighted the need for creative ways to support students to postsecondary credential attainment—including building postsecondary pathways into high school experiences. As an example, the new Accelerate ED initiative from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation seeks to dramatically increase opportunities for high school students to take an additional year of courses related to a career of their interest, earning enough college credits to finish an associate degree by year 13 at no additional cost to them. A dozen communities across the country will be working over the course of the next year to build and scale these efforts to reach more students. Innovative efforts such as these are ways to ensure that high school students have accelerated and accessible options to earn valuable credentials that open doors to great jobs and further education. 

Build stronger bridges from postsecondary education to careers. Higher education institutions are invaluable engines of economic opportunity, and their importance has only increased during the pandemic. But there are crucial changes that postsecondary systems and institutions need to make to serve even more learners and better facilitate their economic mobility. Providing greater access to college and making it more affordable is critical, and so is ensuring a good return on that investment. For people needing new jobs coming out of the pandemic, there is urgency to scale programs leading to high-demand opportunities in fields that pay family-sustaining wages. States like Indiana have used their state and federal resources to provide free community college to learners who pursue credentials in high-growth, well-paying sectors of their economy, making an intentional effort to align college and careers. The REACH collaborative in California, Colorado, New York, North Carolina, Texas, and Virginia is working with community colleges to identify certificate-to-degree pathways in high-demand fields while also providing holistic supports to adults seeking to upskill. The more that postsecondary leaders embrace the idea that preparing graduates to transition to meaningful careers is a core responsibility, the better positioned higher education will be to serve as an engine of equitable economic opportunity and recovery in the United States. 

Embed advising and relationships at the heart of education. Students can only realize the full value of education if they have the resources and support to make informed choices to shape their journey. The isolating impacts of the pandemic have made it clearer than ever that success is about more than knowledge and skills; students also need personalized advice, strong relationships, and healthy networks to reach their full potential and find career success. Students at both the high school and college levels need more formalized and robust ways to access quality advising and build their social capital. We at ESG are excited to be launching new work this year to help communities intentionally build social capital development into the pathways they offer. Stimulus funds also offer the opportunity to invest in creative infrastructure to support these goals. New and expanded partnerships across sectors, establishment and scaling of near-peer advising corps, and increased data capacity in service of more targeted interventions are just a few ways that state and district leaders are seizing this moment to double down on making sure students can access the advising and relational support that they need. 

The road ahead won’t be easy, but the progress and innovation we’ve seen to date are inspiring. If we want to see this work through, we must have the discipline to continue to look around the corner while attending to the immediate issues in front of us. And we need to expand strategic capacity to complement all of the dedicated educators and administrators working on the ground. They cannot go it alone; we need to invest in intermediaries and other outside-the-system actors who bring specialized expertise and can deliver added capacity across the K12, postsecondary and workforce sectors. This is an all-hands-on-deck effort; but two years into the pandemic that changed everything, we have a real shot at building education and workforce preparation systems that equitably and effectively serve every learner.