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.
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 fall.
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.
As the leaders of Central Arizona College, the Maricopa Community College District and Pima Community College, we 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. 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 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. Cover tuition and emergency expenses 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. Facing steep shortfalls in state revenues, policymakers may think it only fair to make across-the-board cuts. This would be a mistake, as it proved to be during the Great Recession when states slashed funding for colleges and need-based financial aid just as a rising number of unemployed and cash-strapped Americans needed to upgrade their skills. This time around, policymakers should target precious resources more wisely.
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.
Jackie Elliott is president and CEO of Central Arizona College; Steven R. Gonzales is interim chancellor of Maricopa County Community College District; Lee Lambert is chancellor of Pima Community College.