Education

Colleges must combat the economic disparities the pandemic has exacerbated (opinion) | Inside Higher Ed

COVID-19 has transformed the United States — and especially its economy — but the consequences for everyday Americans have varied widely based on race, income and education level. The pandemic has exposed long-standing inequity in social mobility, economic resilience and racial justice. It has also clearly shown that the causes and consequences of such inequity are numerous and interconnected.

With close to 40 million American jobs lost in the pandemic, economic hardship is falling on Americans of all backgrounds. But just as Black and brown Americans have faced more devastating health outcomes and acute health disparities from COVID-19, they’re also enduring greater economic consequences. Moreover, estimates suggest that 39 percent of jobs that Black Americans now hold — up to seven million — are in jeopardy due to COVID-19.

Beyond such racial inequity, the pandemic’s economic fallout is likely to intensify the job-displacing trends — including automation and technology — that affect all Americans. Already, economists predict that two-thirds of adults will need some sort of degree or credential of value by 2025 to meet individual, economic and social demands — a number that might very well increase in the wake of the pandemic.

If we are to emerge from this crisis with a robust economy and without leaving people behind, we need to urgently identify, implement and scale solutions that help people adjust to the realities of our talent economy.

Higher education is not only distinctly positioned to lead such an adjustment, but it also can be a powerful weapon in the larger fight to interrupt and circumvent patterns of inequity. Survey data suggests that Black, Latinx and Asian American students are at least three times more likely than white students to report that the COVID-19 pandemic has boosted the value they place on a college education. That holds true even as survey data suggest that students of color and low-income students are likely to take fewer classes this fall, jeopardizing their progress toward graduation.

Postsecondary education alone is not a panacea, but a more responsive system can meet the long-term needs of traditionally underserved students and develop the talent required to fuel an economic recovery.

But to do so, college, industry and policy leaders must each play a role in restructuring academic systems to better serve all students. And philanthropic and nonprofit organizations such as ours must work in tandem as conveners and advocates, elevating proven solutions and helping scale true structural reform.

First, we need systems that give all students agency to confidently — and successfully — pursue their career paths.

Consider that underrepresented students are more likely to pursue degrees that don’t align with their career or earning aspirations. This mismatch contributes to lost income and widening employment gaps in fast-growing fields like STEM, health and business.

Such disparities are unmistakably grounded in systemic and institutional racism. But confronting them directly is possible when higher education institutions center their curricula, advising culture and career services around two key questions that students should ask themselves: What are my personal interests? And what careers offer me the best opportunity to reach my goals?

Colleges should encourage students of color and low-income students to explore their passions or aspirations, but they should also offer coursework and advising that help those students link their interests to a larger career and personal purpose.

As Complete College America’s “College, On Purpose” report demonstrates, the results and track record for higher education institutions that do this are clear. Retention rates improve. Fewer students hop between unrelated majors. And students are more likely to be confident in their career paths.

At Houston Community College, for example, where 77 percent of students are Black, Latinx or Asian American, educators introduced a new virtual onboarding system alongside advising to help students connect academic disciplines and potential careers. The result was an 88 percent increase in the number of students who had declared an academic plan by the end of their first term.

And at historically Black colleges and universities, which have a history of preparing their students for high-demand fields including STEM, robust career services and other key resources are viewed credibly in part because they reflect students’ backgrounds and cultural values. It should come as no shock that students at HBCUs are more than 50 percent more likely to take advantage of career-development resources than their peers at predominantly white institutions.

Second, a consistent mismatch persists between the skills employers want and the skills prospective employees, in fact, possess. In such a volatile and constantly changing economic environment, this disconnect cannot continue.

Employers must play a key role in helping institutions prepare students for in-demand jobs. In June, Bank of America announced a $1 billion economic opportunity initiative, a portion of which will focus explicitly on supporting reskilling and upskilling initiatives through partnerships with high schools and community colleges. And in January, Boeing announced a $6 million partnership with the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, which will fund scholarships, internships, boot camps and other professional development opportunities in aerospace engineering at eight HBCUs. These partnerships model the type of collaboration required at a much larger scale if we are to maximize opportunity for students and fill employers’ needs.

And finally, policy makers must do their part to shield institutions and students from growing budget pressures that threaten the programs and approaches that are driving better outcomes.

This pandemic has already upended our higher education system at a time when Americans — particularly Black and brown Americans — will depend on it more than ever. Yet our current model for career alignment and readiness will leave many of these same students struggling to find good-paying jobs in an economy marked by uncertainty and change. If we fail to invest and create systemic change, we’ll simply continue to embrace the painfully inequitable status quo. That can no longer be an acceptable option.

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