Five ways Arizona can put people back to work and transform higher education
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 is an early warning sign that high-demand jobs may be hard to fill when the labor market fully reopens, 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. MCC has seen a 17% drop in enrollment due to the pandemic, with many students needing to focus on immediate emergency needs involving family and employment.
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 career, the number of people – both young and old – pursuing a postsecondary credential or degree sharply decreased this past academic year.
The steepest and most unsettling drops have been among low-income learners and people 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 by 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 in high-poverty, low-income and urban high schools.
– Approximately 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, and 17% among Hispanics.
As president of Mohave Community College I understand our communities’ struggles and challenges. Our job now is to propel our populations off the economic sidelines, closing the skills gap and building a quality workforce. MCC supports community college leaders across the nation in forming 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 students, employers and the economy.
- Provide people with the in-demand skills they need to get a job and advance their careers. Expand short-term training opportunities and ensure that the training is affordable and of high quality, and fulfills degree requirements.
- Ensure that learning is accessible anywhere and at any time. Address digital disparities in access to remote instruction, improve online learning experiences, and remove barriers to competency-based and accelerated education models.
- Remove financial hurdles to college enrollment and completion. Tuition assistance through a percentage–based model scaled to need, and emergency funding for low-income learners so that, in an uncertain time, they can count on being able to afford college.
- 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.
- Strengthen on-ramps to college. Ensure that student populations that have been historically underserved or deemed not ready for postsecondary education have equitable access to college-in-high-school experiences and sufficient supports to succeed in essential coursework. Completing first-year math and English courses, for example, are proven to create early momentum toward credential attainment.
Arizona should push forward with making these common-sense investments and policy reforms. I value our working partnerships with local and state leaders who see clearly the need to invest in improving workforce opportunities in our communities. I am pleased to be working closely with State Representatives Regina Cobb and Leo Biasiucci on HB2836, which will help MCC support the recovery and reskilling efforts needed to build strong communities after the pandemic. I look forward to sharing this message with other lawmakers and policymakers so we can avoid the community college funding missteps made by states across the country during the Great Recession.
We would encourage policymakers in Arizona to focus specifically on community and technical colleges because they serve a large number of low-income, Black, Latinx and Indigenous learners, and specialize career-focused programs that are key to the nation recovering from the COVID-19 crisis.
If policymakers fail to act, the growing mismatch between workers’ skills and the skills that employers need could ultimately curtail economic growth and career opportunities for years to come.
(Dr. Stacy Klippenstein is president of Mohave Community College.)
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