State Leaders Weigh In on Higher Education During the Pandemic

Postsecondary & Workforce

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Winston Churchill once quipped that he avoided “prophesying beforehand, because it is much better policy to prophesy after the event has already taken place.” His words might ring true for many who ventured predictions last spring about how the COVID-19 pandemic would affect higher education in the states. One common prediction did not come to pass — that community college enrollments would swell as students looked for less expensive options and displaced workers sought new skills. In fact, enrollments dropped much more sharply in two-year colleges than in four-year or graduate programs.

Now, more than a year after the pandemic first shuttered campuses, its longer-term implications for two-year colleges are coming into sharper focus. We spoke with higher education leaders in Alabama and Texas about what the future holds.

Jim Purcell, executive director of the Alabama Commission on Higher Education, and Harrison Keller, Texas Higher Education commissioner, spoke with us about strategies states can use to address the damage caused by the pandemic while preparing for an equally unpredictable future. They offered ideas for making community colleges engines of economic recovery and opportunity by helping people quickly gain skills they need to rebound from economic shocks, including offering financial support to individual learners, improving transparency and building institutions’ capacity.

Offer Financial Support to Individual Learners

The enrollment crash that surprised some experts may be rooted in students’ inability to pay for classes. The job market unraveled much more quickly than it had in previous recessions, and the downturn is hitting Americans with the least education and training hardest. Census data from November suggest that community college students in households with low incomes were also most likely to cancel their college plans because they face the greatest impact from the recession. Almost 40% of all community college students cited job losses as a reason for changing their plans.

State and federal funds can mitigate these challenges. Keller pointed to Texas’ investments from the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund, a $3 billion fund for state governors established by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. Of these funds, $57 million went to offset losses to financial aid, and $46.5 million went to emergency funds for students whose families have suffered most from the pandemic. Another $46.5 million went to “upskilling and reskilling displaced workers in high-demand fields.”

Purcell said that Alabama Gov. Ivey’s decision to nearly double need-based aid before the pandemic helped soften its blow. He worried that nontraditional students — part-time adult students who need to sharpen their skills, for example — might be the last to regain their footing after the pandemic. Those students may need assistance long after the pandemic has passed because they may bear the brunt of its long-term economic consequences.

Improve Transparency

Lack of clear information about opportunities for education may also have contributed to declines in enrollment. By offering well-defined pathways toward skills employers need, colleges can better inform  students’ academic journeys.

Purcell noted that colleges were less likely to suffer steep declines in enrollment if they clearly communicated their plans for addressing the pandemic. In the early months of the pandemic, institutions had to convey basic information about how they would fulfill their core missions amidst the pandemic — whether classes would be on campus, remote or both, for example. Over the longer term, however, they needed to instill confidence that they could offer the skills employers demand in a rapidly changing job market.

Keller said that Texas was using $15 million in GEER funds to strengthen the state’s education and workforce data infrastructure and support tools for college and career advising. These investments complement ongoing efforts to create workforce and education data dashboards to help institutions fortify their strategies for teaching skills employers demand.

Meanwhile, both Texas and Alabama aim to make it easier for job seekers, employers and policymakers to identify credentials that offer the knowledge, skills and abilities employers demand. Alabama is working with the national nonprofit Credential Engine to build a linked open data network that can provide anyone timely and trusted information about the tens of thousands of credentials available in both states. Without such information, it can be risky to invest time and money in training, especially when both are in short supply.

Build Institutions’ Capacity

The pandemic strained community colleges’ capacity. Purcell said that colleges with well-established online learning options fared better, while those that had to make unplanned investments in online learning platforms struggled. Keller worried that efforts to provide widespread skills training may face a “pinch point” if colleges aren’t able to ramp up quickly enough to accommodate them.

Investments in higher education infrastructure might boost institutions’ capacity to offer nontraditional students options to learn anytime and anywhere, adapt learning pathways to evolving needs and forge stronger links with employers. Initiatives like Success Plus in Alabama help pave the way for this work and make institutions more agile in unpredictable times.

After all, the next crisis might look nothing like the last one.


* We’d like to thank Jim Purcell, Ph.D., and Harrison Keller, Ph.D., for their valuable insights.

Author profile
Principal at Education Commission of the States |

Claus oversees efforts to improve statewide longitudinal data systems and provide state-by-state data on STEM education. He has held senior positions in education policy and research for more than 17 years and has spent much of that time helping diverse stakeholders find consensus on important education issues. Claus is dedicated to ensuring that state leaders have the information and guidance they need to make the best possible decisions affecting young people.

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