The COVID-19 pandemic has directed a glaring spotlight on the economic pain inflicted on workers who are “disproportionately less educated, have limited health care, are toward the bottom of income distribution, and have low levels of liquid assets,” according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. Many of those who were already struggling are now even further behind, with prospects for personal financial recovery that are uncertain at best.
Higher education is an unmatched vehicle for intellectual and career advancement. We should focus on the benefit it can bring to those seeking to adapt to a constantly changing economy. And just as importantly, we should frame higher education as one of the most effective mechanisms for combatting inequality itself, engaging with people before and after they are students.
Higher education has a unique capacity to disrupt the growing inequities that increasingly define our communities and our culture; it does so by lifting students’ career paths and trajectories. To maximize this, we must reconfigure higher education to accommodate the specific needs and demands of an economically and culturally diverse population – people from different backgrounds, at different stages in life, with different skillsets and different goals.
Here are a few ideas and strategies to assist the New Normal workforce that warrant further exploration.
Teach ‘Career Spanning’ Skills
The workplace and economy are always changing – faster than ever. Universities should foster longitudinal learning through degree plans that prepare students to thrive, innovate constantly and allow for career evolution.
Often these abilities are dismissively referred to as “soft skills.” But employers want people who can identify and solve problems, listen, ask questions, collaborate, work in teams, and communicate orally and in writing. Universities also can provide other valuable skillsets, such as those related to cultural awareness, through active learning environments that will help students succeed in a 21st century economy.
The majority of today’s students are working adults who need flexibility. Nearly 20 million students are currently enrolled in post-secondary education across the country – almost 75% of them are nontraditional, meaning they have dependents, work 35 hours per week, or are enrolled part-time, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Research shows that the overwhelming majority of students enrolled in post-high school programs are there for career opportunities and advancement. By designing microcredentialing offerings consistent with baccalaureate degrees or above, universities can provide a critical bridging tool for students reacting to new opportunities and interests, economic changes or technological advancements.
Transfer and Retention Policies
During the last 20 years, more than 30 million Americans have left college without a degree or certificate. Inequality exacerbates this: Black and Hispanic students who enroll in post-high school programs are much less likely than white students to earn a degree or credential. This contributes to systemic disparities. A higher rate of post-high school completion and career-long learning pathways will help fight inequality. It also will ensure that more people can weather macroeconomic turbulence and smaller setbacks. We should embrace policies that allow students to retain as many credits as possible from past courses, removing an important barrier that prevents some students from successfully transferring between institutions.
Wraparound Support Services
Higher education too often reflects the reality of a bygone era – the idea that almost all students are fresh out of high school and relying on their parents to fund their education. For most students, this reflects an obvious disparity with their own circumstances. Wraparound services – such as childcare, health care screenings, and university-provided transportation – can be vital for students balancing their education with families and careers. If higher education is to offer these students a path to gaining workforce-ready skills, we need to think proactively about how to make college work around their lives.
Aligning University Curriculum with Workforce Needs
Higher education needs clear communication with employers who track the skills that are most needed, and institutions should adjust their offerings based on market needs. This information should be shared with students and potential students. Universities also can track student progress longitudinally to determine how well academic performance translates into professional opportunities.
All of these ideas require new, additive thinking about the role of higher education. This is not an abandonment of the formative role universities play in the lives of traditional students. We should never compromise that core service and mission, nor should we approach higher education as a zero-sum game that pairs one person’s gain with someone else’s loss. Instead, we should focus on the things that colleges and universities can do better than anyone else, and find new and innovative ways to improve even more. We should embrace contact with – and relevance in – the outside world, making sure we are serving more people while raising the quality of that service.
The New Normal means nothing will be the same. There’s no reason we can’t make some things better.
Watson is founding dean of the Hobby School of Public Affairs at UH, where he leads a team that puts creative public policy to work for the world. This is an excerpt from his New Normal Task Force white paper.