As California re-opens its economy, equity in higher education must be a focus; increasing college access will be essential to the recovery.
In its devastation, the COVID-19 pandemic has magnified our society’s deep inequities and pushed those who have the least even further behind.
More than half of the adults who have lost income were already living in poverty, according to a national survey from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Blacks and Latinos have been more likely to lose their jobs, and because of health disparities, have suffered higher rates of infection and death.
As California re-opens its economy, equity must be a focus. Higher education has always been key to socioeconomic mobility. Now, more than ever, increasing college access and success will be essential to ensuring that California can recover and emerge stronger.
Before the pandemic, workers with college degrees were in high demand as jobs increasingly required more technical, creative and critical-thinking skills. Adapting to changes caused by the pandemic will increase the need for a highly educated workforce as businesses leverage new technology and develop innovations.
The advantage of higher education was seen after the Great Recession. In 2014, as the economy made gains, the state unemployment rate for workers with at least a bachelor’s degree was 4.5 percent, compared to 11.3 percent for those with a high school diploma, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.
But the COVID-19 crisis has made it much harder for students to earn degrees. As campuses closed and education moved online, students found themselves out of work, without housing and often without the technology necessary for educational continuity.
For students from low-income families – many of them first-generation college-goers, undocumented immigrants and people of color – the obstacles to higher education now feel insurmountable. Yet California cannot afford to ignore these students. The majority of the state’s young people – our emerging workforce and tomorrow’s leaders – are from low-income families and communities of color.
In recent years, the state’s investments in higher education have paid off. Remedial education reform, improved student supports and streamlined college pathways have moved more students toward degree completion.
The state must continue to build on those advances. Even with fewer resources, California can leverage these priorities:
- Make transfers easy and seamless. Students need flexibility in where they start, continue and finish their education. The crisis forced many students to move, and they may have to continue their studies at a different institution. More may opt for community college to save money. By increasing coordination between institutions, particularly regionally, the higher education system can make students’ education more portable.
- Increase student support services. Especially now, students need help navigating academic and career pathways as well as managing emotional and financial upheavals. Schools should boost online advising and counseling. Improved regional coordination can enable institutions to share and maximize their resources. Making support more accessible will help students stay in school and complete their degrees faster.
- Be flexible with financial aid requirements. Students should be allowed to use aid for needs beyond tuition such as housing, transportation, technology and food. Moreover, given the disruptions and continued uncertainty, students should not have to pay back aid or be prevented from future eligibility because they did not finish a course, did not receive grades or had to interrupt their education.
- Strengthen partnerships that align education and labor needs. Our higher education system should work more closely with civic and business leaders to develop economic strategies. Collaboration is critical to collect and assess data, match people to jobs quickly and attract sectors that have long-term potential.
Even as this crisis has underscored our inequities, it has emphasized our interconnectedness. The only way to move forward is together. By re-imagining and re-building a system of education and an economy that includes opportunities for the most vulnerable, we can ensure a brighter future for all of us.
Monica Lozano is president and CEO of College Futures Foundation and a member of Governor Newsom’s Task Force on Business & Jobs Recovery, firstname.lastname@example.org. She wrote this commentary for CalMatters.