A new brief from the Committee for Economic Development of the Conference Board (CED) provides recommendations to policymakers for how to mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the higher education system.
The brief, “Developing the Future Workforce: Revitalizing Postsecondary Education and Training After COVID-19,” lays out the challenges faced by institutions during the pandemic and recommends ways to improve postsecondary education and workforce training in a post-pandemic society.
“In supporting these institutions at this moment, we want to be sure that we are not just sort of papering over long-run problems,” said Devin O’Connor, deputy director of economic research at CED. “How can we do this support in a way that we are increasing the capacity and the quality of the institutions that are going to be the most broad-based, accessible rungs and help the most number of people to sort of advance their education and career in the future?”
With the fall semester approaching, postsecondary institutions are facing decisions about ensuring the safety of their communities by choosing to either remain online or go back to in-person learning. Schools also face enrollment uncertainty, especially from international students, due to ongoing travel restrictions. Additionally, institutions are seeing budget cuts and employee layoffs due to the economic impact of COVID-19.
However, even before the pandemic, the higher education sector was financially vulnerable.
Since 2012, enrollment in higher education institutions has declined by more than 10%. Due to decreased revenue and higher expenses, around 20% of small private colleges have experienced financial stress. Additionally, over two-thirds of private institutions that enroll at least 500 students faced increased debt and diminished endowments yearly and were “tuition dependent,” the brief said.
Despite postsecondary institutions contributing to a stronger workforce in the United States, many students consider attending college a financial risk.
For example, among those students who began their postsecondary education in 2003-04 and collected student loans, 45% of “noncompleters” and 44% of certificate “completers” defaulted on a student loan within 12 years. There were student loan defaults by 22% of associate degree earners and 8% of bachelor’s degree earners as well, the report said.
To reform the higher education sector, the brief suggested that institutions should be provided with more federal funding, especially community colleges.
“We as a nation cannot afford to have postsecondary systems collapse at a time when we really need to ensure that our workforce has the capabilities and the institutions that can train the workforce,” said Dr. Lori Esposito Murray, president of CED.
The community college system “serves as an opportunity for advancement and success for vulnerable populations as well as lower income populations,” she added.
Secondly, policymakers should look to provide grants to community colleges which would allow them to provide more course options, increase population capacity and improve remote learning during the pandemic and afterward.
O’Connor emphasized that community colleges provide many individuals either the initial or last “foray” into the postsecondary space.
“It is really important that we invest in making the community college system more robust and stronger and better performing as a first order of thrust,” he said.
To create affordable and accessible models for education and training, especially during a time of online learning, policymakers, educators and businesses should look toward innovation such as technological advancements. Prior to the pandemic, one-third of college students took some form of online classes. However, online education still faces flexibility issues around “students’ location, speed of progress, and scheduling convenience,” the brief said.
Another recommendation is to increase the accountability of education and training organizations. Additionally, institutions should collaborate with private sectors to outline in-demand job skills to improve students’ and trainees’ employment outcomes.
Lastly, the brief recommended that employers implement policies that encourage students to complete more postsecondary education and training opportunities. This includes communicating essential skills to potential students and trainers, as well as establishing benefits to serve as their recruitment and advancement tools, according to the research.
Murray said higher education institutions should recognize the “important role” they play in educating Americans and training the workforce.
“[Postsecondary schools] really need to look internally in terms of what types of reforms really need to be done to make sure that they are financially viable and also providing the type of education that really does meet the needs of the economy,” she added.
Sarah Wood can be reached at email@example.com.