Now’s our chance: The education, training, and equity changes we must make in this recovery
Racial Justice and Equity

Now’s our chance: The education, training, and equity changes we must make in this recovery

A productivity desktop shows 3 computers, a cup of coffee, and a hand typing. The user appears to be coding.
iStock / SARINYAPINNGAM

Crises have a way of revealing who we really are, and that’s as true for nations as it is for people. If we don’t fix critical education, job training, and racial equity challenges during this pandemic recovery, we’ll miss an historic opportunity.

With vaccinations finally available a year after the health crisis began, we’re looking ahead to another phase – what could be a complex, winding road to economic recovery. We must seize the moment to vastly improve our coordination of education, workforce, and economic development policies, leading with equity at core of our efforts.

Here are some of the steps:

  • Credential pathways deserve a fresh look. Credential-as-you-go models, for example, help students earning an associate degree to gain industry certifications that have immediate economic value.
  • Provide better mentoring and support for students, bundling the different types of economic, advising, and other resources that students, especially adults, need to reach important milestones.
  • Address non-tuition expenses. These account for about 80 percent of the cost of attendance at community colleges. By addressing childcare, transportation, food, housing, and other issues we can increase completion rates by 10 percent or more.
  • Develop culturally relevant implementation to provide guided pathways to completion for Black, Hispanic and Latino, and Native American students.

The Equity Scorecard at the University of Southern California’s Center for Urban Education helps to disaggregate data about student success by race. It shows that we can substantially increase attainment rates for Black, and Hispanic and Latino students doing that kind of work, and this has implications for federal policy and other areas.

The Pell Grant remains the foundation of federal efforts to address access and affordability, and we must take steps to restore and ensure the purchasing power of that program, in the face of rising tuition prices and non-tuition costs that burden so many students. Less well known to many is the TAACCCT grant program — Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training. A decade ago this $2 billion investment proved that community colleges can and must be a key part of our response to an economic downturn; and having learned that lesson, we should not hesitate to apply a similar approach to this new moment of economic distress.

Coordination is the theme here. Truly equitable outcomes in education and training require a nation pulling together at every level, with the establishment of a federal coordinating agency much like the Office of the Director for National Intelligence, but instead focused on integrating education and workforce strategies.  A further step might even be the creation of a U.S. Department of Talent to pool federal education and workforce resources more efficiently.

More than just the pandemic recovery is driving this imperative for improvement. The health crisis accelerated changes in nearly every sector of society, so that education and workforce changes that we didn’t expect to see for another decade are happening now – think distance instruction, working from home, the move away from tech centers.

This calls for a focus on preparing everyone for “human work,” the work of the future that only people can do. To understand the urgency of the moment, consider that automation and artificial intelligence aren’t just displacing people on factory floors: Lawyers, doctors, accountants, and others face the prospect of dramatic, AI-driven changes ahead.

But while machines are capable of deep learning – the ability to drill down into algorithms and larger and more comprehensive data sets – humans have a great strength too: wide learning: wide in time, wide in people and wide in content.

Learning that is wide in time occurs throughout a person’s career as they keep skills and knowledge updated – a requirement as the pace of change continues to accelerate. Learning that is wide in people means that which prepares us to serve populations diverse in race, ethnicity, immigration status, gender, and a host of other factors.

A third feature of wide learning has to do with content, of course, since the broader a person’s knowledge base and capabilities, and the greater their creativity, the more opportunities they’ll have.

Providing those wide-learning opportunities means addressing some pressing fundamentals in social supports and worker rights. Progress will mean agreement, perhaps not on every point, but on the idea that what we have now does not work. It is too expensive; it takes too long, and it doesn’t provide the kind of equity that we need in the system.

A new framework will recognize that there are substantial public benefits when people learn, and that beneficial outcomes aren’t measured in paychecks alone. Educated people contribute to society in multiple ways, including through civic participation, volunteerism, and paying taxes. For too long, we’ve failed to fully account for those benefits, unfairly placing more of the costs on students and workers.

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