5 ways Va. can put people back to work and transform higher education
Common-sense policy reforms and investments in community colleges will support economic recovery efforts
It’s tempting these days to believe that once COVID-19 is contained, the U.S. economy will bounce back quickly, replenishing jobs and incomes lost in the pandemic. Yet there are early warning signs that when the labor market fully reopens, some high-demand jobs may be hard to fill even with millions of Americans looking for work.
This fall, hundreds of thousands of people delayed — or gave up on — their plans to pursue postsecondary education and training. Most of that decline occurred at community colleges, where enrollment fell by more than 10%, or more than 544,000 students nationwide.
Typically, college enrollment rises during an economic recession, especially among out-of-work adults who need to polish their skills to get a leg up in the job market. Yet, despite a record spike in unemployment and a broadly held view among working-age Americans that more education and training will help them get a good job, the number of people — both young and old — pursuing a postsecondary credential or degree sharply decreased this fall.
The steepest and most unsettling drops have been among low-income learners and students of color. Consider the following, based on enrollment data collected by the National Student Clearinghouse and household surveys conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau:
- The share of older adults enrolling in college for the first time declined 30%.
- Among students who graduated from high school in 2020, postsecondary enrollment was 22% lower than it was for members of the class of 2019. Enrollment plunged the most among students who graduated from high-poverty, low-income, and urban high schools.
- About 48% of people from low-income households canceled their education plans — nearly double the rate of people from wealthy households.
- Community college enrollment fell 20% among Black and indigenous men.
As president of Northern Virginia Community College and senior vice chancellor of the Virginia Community College System, we know all too well the struggles facing our communities and what needs to be done to support more people in moving off the economic sidelines and into skill-building that leads to quality jobs and careers. We have joined forces with community college leaders across the nation to form The Policy Leadership Trust to call for change on campus and in public policy to make higher education more responsive and relevant to the changing nature of work and the changing needs of today’s learners.
Doing these five things would be good for Virginia’s students, employers, and the economy:
- Provide people with the in-demand skills they need to get a job and advance their careers. Expand FastForward short-term training opportunities and ensure that the training is affordable and of high quality to meet business and industry needs.
- Ensure that learning is accessible anywhere and at any time. Address digital disparities in access to remote instruction, including access to broadband, and remove barriers to competency-based and accelerated education models.
- Remove financial hurdles to college enrollment and completion. Fully fund G3 to cover the costs of tuition, fees and books for low-income learners so that in an uncertain time, they can count on being able to afford college and complete credentials leading to high-demand jobs.
- Help people earn while they learn. Bolster college and employer partnerships in apprenticeship, work-study, and other work-based learning experiences that connect education and career goals. These partnerships build workplace readiness that benefits both the student and the employer.
- Help students navigate the first year of college. Ensure that student populations that have been historically underserved or deemed not ready for postsecondary education have sufficient supports to access financial resources, choose sustaining career pathways, enroll in programs, and succeed in essential coursework. Completing first-year math and English courses, for example, is proven to create early momentum toward credential attainment.
We encourage Virginia’s policymakers to push forward with these common-sense policy reforms and investments in our community colleges. The road to economic recovery runs through our institutions. Virginia’s community colleges reflect the diversity of the commonwealth, serving the very groups disproportionately impacted by the pandemic — those who most need the state’s support. We urge policymakers not to miss this opportunity to expand our colleges’ ability to offer the specialized, career-focused programs and supports that are key to Virginia’s post-pandemic economic future.
If policymakers fail to act, the growing mismatch between the skills that workers have and the skills that employers need could ultimately curtail Virginia’s economic growth for years to come.
Anne M. Kress is president of Northern Virginia Community College. Sharon Morrissey is senior vice chancellor for academic services and research for Virginia’s Community Colleges.