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A lost generation

Photo by Piron Guillaume on Unsplash

The latest on the pandemic’s impact on children, higher ed’s mounting challenges, and long-term labor shortages. Also, Amazon backs community colleges and new evidence on college majors’ impact on inequity in earnings. Welcome back! (Sign up here to get this newsletter.)


‘Our Finest Hour’

As the pandemic enters its third year, more evidence is emerging about the damage suffered by children and young adults.

School closures and losses in math and reading skills could result in a $17T global decline in lifetime earnings for today’s students, according to a December report from the UN and the World Bank. And the report found that the crisis is worsening educational inequities, with lower-income students, girls, and students with disabilities facing the biggest challenges.

Meanwhile, the pandemic-fueled mental health state of emergency for America’s youth threatens to “reverberate through U.S. society when these children are adults,” several experts wrote for the Brookings Institution.

David Leonhardt of The New York Times this week described the potential for a lost generation, citing alarming data on suicide attempts, gun violence, and behavioral problems among children and adolescents. He wrote about hard decisions over allowing K-12 students to resume normal life, which could create additional risks amid the Omicron surge for unvaccinated adults or those who are vaccinated but elderly or immunocompromised.

Many Americans have not adequately grappled with the inherent trade-offs in those decisions, he wrote:

They have accepted more harm to children in exchange for less harm to adults, often without acknowledging the dilemma or assessing which decisions lead to less overall harm.

Higher Ed’s Challenge: Colleges and universities, too, are seeing huge increases in students experiencing anxiety and other mental health challenges. Institutions themselves also are struggling with pandemic-related disruptions. The federal aid they received earlier in the crisis soon will run out while the enrollment crisis and their workforce challenges continue. And the demographic cliff is looking steeper, with millions of disengaged high school students and recent graduates who are postponing or canceling college plans.

Some colleges are going to crack soon, Kent Syverud, the chancellor and president of Syracuse University, told Politico. “I’ve seen institutions getting more and more fragile, including very highly regarded institutions,” he said, “and I’m worried that if we don’t have greater confidence and certainty going into the fall of 2022, it’s going to be really bad.”

Community colleges and their students have been hit the hardest—the sector’s enrollment is down 15 percent over two years. Yet Bill Pink, president of Grand Rapids Community College, hits a hopeful note in an essay this week for Work Shift. Never in his career have Americans so relied on the community college sector to help drive a recovery, Pink writes:

The last 20 months have been every bit of a precarious situation for our country, and in particular higher education. Yet, as I think about my college, as well as the 1,100 other community and technical colleges in this country, I firmly believe that this is going to be OUR finest hour.

However, Pink warns that two-year colleges must prioritize collaboration with K-12 schools, four-year institutions, and the industries that hire their graduates. “The Quad,” as Pink calls that four-way collaboration, creates clarity for students as they enter and exit the career highway.

Seeking Better Jobs

The current job market is the most unusual one in modern history, according to The Washington Post. Companies are desperate to hire workers while millions of Americans have either retired or are staying on the sidelines.

A record 4.5M American workers quit their jobs in November, while 10.6M jobs remained unfilled, according to new federal data. Many workers are looking for better jobs or pay, and wages are rising as the job market’s power dynamics appear to be fundamentally shifting. 

However, the labor market participation rate of women has stagnated at 57.5 percent, well below pre-pandemic levels. Women are more likely to work in part-time, low-paid jobs, and they have faced a higher risk of losing work as retail stores, restaurants, and other service-sector businesses have struggled. Black women in particular have left the workforce, in part due to being disproportionately affected by the ongoing childcare crisis.

In the long run, employers appear likely to face some of the same demographic challenges that loom for higher education. With death rates rising and birth rates dropping, labor shortages may be here to stay.

High labor costs likely will become a regular contributor to rising inflation. They also are raising difficult questions about how much some of the nation’s most vital employment sectors can continue to rely on a relatively low-paid workforce, The Washington Post reports.

The Kicker: “In 2022, something’s got to give. Otherwise, worker shortages could become an enduring feature—or defect—of the U.S. economy,” the newspaper concluded.

Amazon Backs Two-Year Colleges

The struggle businesses face to hire and retain employees—while also improving their diversity—is almost certain to continue to drive their investment in college tuition benefits and other perks for workers.

Amazon joined this growing group in September, announcing a free college program for its 750K front-line American employees. The retail giant plans to spend $1.2B on education and skills training for its U.S. workers over the next three years. 

The company apparently has opted out of teaming up with a skills and education platform company for the program. But Amazon circulated an RFP for colleges that want to be its education partners for the free college initiative. Many have applied, sources say.

And last month, the company announced $3M in grants to support the creation of four-year computer science programs at community and technical colleges in Seattle and across Washington State. 

A company official told Inside Higher Ed’s Suzanne Smalley that Amazon pushed for the recently passed law that allows the state’s two-year colleges to issue bachelor’s degrees in computer science. Support for the legislation was driven in part by the fact that students earned just 1,883 computer science degrees in Washington State in a recent year, according to a news release on the announcement, while the state’s huge tech sector has 24,000 job openings.

Mary Alice McCarthy, who directs the Center on Education and Labor at New America, applauds Amazon for investing in public higher education and community colleges. “It seems like a pretty strong validation of community college baccalaureate education,” she says.

Earnings and College Majors

In the great debate about whether college pays off financially, there’s clear evidence that what students study matters. A lot.

Wide variation in what different fields ultimately pay contributes to wage gaps between men and women, and to racial inequality in income and wealth. That’s a major reason why the U.S. Department of Education and many state agencies have been collecting and publishing more information on colleges’ program-level student outcomes.

The hope is that with better information, students can make more informed decisions. There’s mounting evidence, however, that college policies play just as big a role in who majors in what.

One new study found that Black and Latino students at four-year institutions are disproportionately pushed into lower-paying fields because of the GPA restrictions placed on certain majors.

  • The gap between the economic value of degrees earned by underrepresented minority and white students had narrowed substantially for people reaching adulthood in the mid-’80s, but it began growing again for those at that same stage in the ’00s, according to the paper by researchers at Harvard’s Opportunity Insights initiative and the University of California, Santa Barbara.
  • That’s due in large part, the analysis found, to the increase in GPA cutoffs for entering certain lucrative programs—like engineering and the computer sciences—at large public universities.

As a result, Black and Latino students are now three percentage points more likely to major in low-paying fields than are their white and Asian American peers. 

In the community college sector, student choice also is restricted by the number of seats colleges offer in various programs. And there’s evidence those constraints also disproportionately impact Black and Latino students.

  • Researchers at the Brookings Institution, for example, recently found that at institutions with large proportions of underrepresented minority students, only 16 percent of the seats are in programs in high-earning fields—compared to almost 25 percent at institutions with the lowest levels of Black and Latino enrollment.

Academic and career counseling, or its absence, also influence what students study. Students are often drawn to fields they’re familiar with, and white students—especially those from advantaged families and communities—often have more exposure to the full breadth of available careers.

Moreover, as Michael Collins, vice president at JFF, wrote in an op-ed for The Hechinger Report, Black students often are especially drawn to social justice roles and “helping” jobs like teaching and social work, which are some of the lowest-paying professions. Institutions, Collins wrote, need to provide better guidance—enabling students to see ways they can both achieve financial security and help their communities.

The Kicker: “Black learners should not be made to believe that they must forgo economic opportunity to serve their communities,” he said.

—By Elyse Ashburn

Open Tabs

Career Focus

Hartwick College is emphasizing postgraduate employability by assessing students’ strengths and career goals from the time they arrive on campus, all under the supervision of career and success coaches, reports Jon Marcus for The Hechinger Report. The small private college in New York created its FlightPath program as part of a “top-to-bottom change” after struggling with enrollment declines.

Job Connections

A broad group of civic leaders and employers in Cleveland is seeking to connect thousands of high school students to well-paying jobs through internships, apprenticeships, job shadowing, and visits to businesses, reports Patrick O’Donnell for The 74. The PACE program strives to make workplace learning a standard part of high school for all students, not just those in vocational programs or who are top academic performers.

Short-Term Credentials

The term “certificate” appears to have become the standard-bearer for short-form educational programs, as fewer providers are using branded names, writes Sean Gallagher, founder and executive director of Northeastern University’s Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy. In his essay for EdSurge, Gallagher revisits predictions he made five years ago in a book on the future of university credentials.

Dual Enrollment

Dual enrollment students have increased odds of completing a college credential relative to their peers who were not dually enrolled in high school and college, according to a new study by Matthew P. Ison, assistant director of College Credit Plus at Sinclair Community College. However, the study published in the Community College Review found that dual-enrollment students have diminished odds of earning an associate degree or certificate relative to a bachelor’s degree.

Dual enrollment is the tool New Mexico needs to improve the state’s relatively low educational attainment rates, Tracey Bryan, president and CEO of the Bridge of Southern New Mexico, writes for the Las Cruces Sun News. More than 20K New Mexico students have completed dual-credit courses in each of the past four years, she writes, noting that 62 percent were people of color and 55 percent were economically disadvantaged.

Job Move

Chris Howard, president of Robert Morris University, has been hired by Arizona State University. As executive vice president and chief operating officer of ASU Enterprise, Howard will help create a “new model for a national university dedicated to access, excellence, and impact,” ASU said. A Rhodes Scholar and former Air Force helicopter pilot and intelligence officer, Howard earned a Bronze Star for his service in Afghanistan.

Welcome back, and thanks for reading. Here’s to hoping for good news in 2022. —@paulfain

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