How Colleges Can Help Educate the 40-Million-Plus Newly Unemployed

May 29, 2020

Roughly one out of every four American workers are now unemployed, after jobless claims rose to more than 40 million this week. Typically, that results in a rush of people looking to higher education for new skills and credentials. But with such a sudden shift in the employment landscape, how can colleges best respond?

That was the big question driving an online discussion this week as part of our monthly EdSurge Live series.

Helping explore the topic were:

• Ajita Menon, the president and CEO of California’s online-only community college, Calbright College. Ajita previously served in the Obama Administration as Special Assistant to the President for Higher Education Policy at the White House Domestic Policy Council, where she led efforts to expand college opportunity, affordability, innovation and completion.

• Lexi Barrett, associate vice president for policy at the nonprofit Jobs for the Future. Before joining JFF, Lexi spent nearly a decade in public service at the federal level, including working on Capitol Hill for six years, and serving as a policy advisor to the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education at the U.S. Department of Education.

Listen to the conversation below, or read highlights below.

A need for speed in learning

Experts at conferences have been talking for years about “the future of work”—how automation and other forces will reshape the job market, and how colleges need to create new kinds of offerings that are more flexible. Barrett said that with COVID-19, “it’s kind of like the future of work just dropped down on top of us all of a sudden.”

Colleges should realize that many learners will be looking to colleges to help them accelerate their learning, she added. That includes serving new high school graduates grappling with “learning loss” from the last weeks of disrupted schooling, and also helping “new adults coming into higher education who have been out of college for a long time.”

Menon said that California’s new online college was designed to help working adults find “skills-based pathways that are aligned to industry standards,” and to help connect them with the labor market.

Doing that well, she said, requires colleges to think more holistically about all the services they offer. “It’s not just, ‘I pick up my tray and I go here and I meet with my advisor,’ then, ‘I pick up my tray and I go to an online lecture.’ There has to be much more integration between traditionally siloed parts of the college.”

An evolving ecosystem

Menon argued it’s important that public universities work to serve learners “facing the greatest economic dislocation,” because otherwise predatory for-profit players will try to capitalize on their needs at a time of little regulation, in ways that don’t always deliver good results.

But Barrett said that these days students have plenty of new educational options that are high quality, including low-cost microcredentials from MOOC providers like Coursera, edX and Udacity.

“It would be a missed opportunity for some of the brick-and-mortar institutions—like regional publics and community colleges—to just treat this time as a stop gap. To just look at it as, we just need to move things online and then we’ll get back to the way things used to be in a couple of months. Because that wasn’t working for so many of those students.”

Barrett argued that colleges situated in a community can offer things that are harder for national players to replicate. One of the biggest benefit for students of a community college or regional university, she said, is “they get tied into people who understand the economics that are happening in that community, [and] what the jobs are, in a way that is harder for someone who is trying to make matches more nationally” to figure out.

Employers need to change, too

Menon said that while community college degrees are often seen as less valuable by employers than degrees from four-year colleges, she argued that their offerings are academically rigorous and sometimes more aligned to local employment opportunities. She hopes that the pandemic can help bring a shift in attitudes about which kinds of degrees have value.

“By design, applicant tracking systems and other parts of the way that employment selection [happens] in a way that is meant to weed people out and to be exclusionary,” she said. “And so I feel like this is a real moment for higher education to not just bridge revenue gaps that they might experience from traditional enrollment declines, but really embrace this opportunity to think about new markets [of students who are traditionally underserved], and the value that they can provide to them in a way that serves the equity mission that everybody talks about but don’t deliver nearly as well on.”

Barrett added that this is a moment when colleges of all types should open a new dialogue with employers. “We need to be learning from each other and we need to be doing it all together,” she said.

But will colleges have the resources to respond?

The pandemic is hurting the bottom line of colleges as well, with many already announcing budget cuts due to expected enrollment declines or reductions in state support.

“I do think it is problematic that during these periods we see states pulling back from investments in higher education. I think it makes the job much harder,” said Menon. “What is required now is a degree of ingenuity around how we reposition and redeploy the work that happens on campus in a way that’s not just more efficient, but produces a more efficient result.”

Barrett agreed that financial pressures will raise new challenges..

“I spend a lot of my time thinking about federal policy and, being based in D.C., it has not been super heartening to watch the way that Congress and the administration have been tackling this so far,” she said. “We’re still very much in the mindset of immediate relief, which makes sense,” she added. “But there are things that policy can do that can help—[to] either provide incentives, provide some of that funding … or remove some of the traditional barriers that have made doing distance learning and doing high quality competency based education so challenging from a federal regulatory level.”


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