3 ways the pandemic is changing colleges’ mandate right now

by Jeremy

The ideas making the rounds last week at the virtual SXSW EDU conference — usually hosted in Austin, Texas — weren’t anything new. Higher education experts and college officials spoke of the need for digital equity, unbundled degrees, and better alignment between credentials and the skills employers are seeking. A year into the coronavirus pandemic, however, these ideas have taken on more urgency. Without accessible and flexible credentials, experts suggested, the country will struggle to meet workforce needs during the economic recovery and well into the future.

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“We’re at the end of the beginning,” said Mark Milliron, senior vice president and executive dean at Western Governors University’s Teachers College, during a panel. “We can see now what a path forward is going to look like, but there is work between now and then.”

Serving today’s students

The pandemic has underscored the need to dispel notions that most of today’s college students are fresh out of high school and living on campus. One-quarter of undergraduates are also parents, and an equal portion of those attending four-year colleges are going part-time. Large shares of both full-time and part-time college students also hold down a job.

“They (students) are certainly not who you see in movies,” said Julie Peller, executive director of Higher Learning Advocates, a nonprofit aiming to improve student outcomes, during a panel. “They’re not, by and large, playing Frisbee on the quad, going to frat parties on Friday nights, and leaving in four years.”

Many nontraditional students require assistance with childcare, transportation, and food and shelter to be academically successful, Peller continued. The three major federal coronavirus relief packages require colleges spend a portion of their funding on emergency student aid.

But policymakers should also focus on better connecting short-term training with degrees, a marriage Peller said allows students to “get back to work tomorrow and start a career further down the road.”

Eastern Michigan University has taken steps to bridge that divide by building off the state’s recently launched free community college program for frontline workers. It offers participants scholarships to complete a bachelor’s degree if they earn an associate degree at nearby Henry Ford College.

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