Looking past the pandemic: Educators from Michigan, Texas, and Illinois ponder the changes wrought by COVID
In the 22nd episode of the Lumina Foundation podcast “Today’s Student/Tomorrow’s Talent,” Cathy Longstreet, a school counselor at Hastings (Michigan) High School, tells me about one of her students who was headed to college before COVID-19 struck.
Now, the senior is working as many hours as he can in a local grocery store to support his family while trying to figure out whether to continue his education or go straight into the workforce.
Multiply that student by millions, and you begin to have a picture of how education in this country has changed in a matter of weeks.
Longstreet and my other guests on the podcast, Juan Salgado, chancellor of City Colleges of Chicago, and Harrison Keller, Texas’s higher education commissioner, join me to talk about the future of education after the pandemic.
The words that come up often are “uncertain” and “persistence.” Uncertain, because no one knows how long the virus will last and what prolonged effects it will have. Persistence, because that’s what we’ll need to push through.
Longstreet is a counselor in a school where almost half the students would be first-generation college students. Every year, she sees some “summer melt”— students committing to college during high school but failing to show up in the fall. This year, she expects even more.
“I have a feeling that many more are going to step back than normally do in the summer just to wait to see what happens with COVID-19 and see if they can stabilize their families,” she says.
She encourages students to stay in contact with their colleges, to go to the virtual events colleges hold, and to keep going forward in the process. And she urges colleges to get first-year students to campus, if possible.
“They need to start strong and with full support from that college to get the ball rolling in that next level,” she says. “In the absence of that, we’re going to get many more students who are not going to start, who are not going to persist. There are too many variables there that are not going to be controllable.”
Salgado has a similar message. He says community colleges need to reach out to students to let them know that if they can continue with their education, they should.
“When the economy rebounds, it will rebound to the benefit of those who have an education and a skill,” he says, adding that “education ends up paying off.”
His seven community colleges have worked to keep students connected by making sure everyone has access to a computer and internet — because not all did. Providing student services has been critical during the pandemic.
In addition, the Chicago colleges have raised nearly $800,000 to provide support for their students who have taken a financial hit. Although the federal government has placed restrictions on who can receive stimulus money — penalizing a number of community college students, Salgado pledges that every student who needs emergency assistance will receive it. The aid may not come from federal dollars, but “we are going to find a way to make sure that every student gets the same amount of money at each of our colleges,” he says.
Keller tells me that budgetary pressures are immense at Texas institutions. His state’s colleges and universities have lost money by having to refund room and board charges, which can be 9-15% of their overall budgets. In addition, summer enrollment is down 20-30%, and fall is off as much as 50% for community colleges. They’re also losing money from canceled athletic and campus events.
Federal stimulus dollars have been helpful, but “there are major gaps in the budgets,” he says.
Keller says he’s concerned about students who were already facing housing and food insecurity, those whose families have suffered financial shocks and may not be able to continue their education, and adult learners — especially those who lack a credential and are at high risk for unemployment.
While COVID-19 has upended many aspects of education, my guests do cite some positives. Longstreet says the virus has helped her seniors prioritize. “I cannot believe the level of maturity when I speak to them.”
Salgado says the seven colleges he oversees have nimbly converted to online platforms. Previously, only 10% of their classes had been online; now, it’s 92%. “We’ve lost a lot of normalcy in our lives, but we were able to deliver to our students the normalcy that comes with continuing their education.”
And Keller says the disruption of education has spawned creative ideas about how to present course material and focused educators on the needs of students who might benefit from different approaches.
In addition, it’s prompted schools to think about what role campuses should play in supporting and accelerating economic recovery.
“Part of how we’re going to help our state and our nation upskill, reskill, get back on their feet is going to be through postsecondary education,” he says.