“Don’t waste a crisis” is wise advice that can be hard to remember when you’re actually living through one. And right now, our national response to COVID-19 is a mess.

To come out of the crisis as quickly and with as little long-term damage as possible, we need a lot more coordination among federal, state, and local authorities to make sure their disparate efforts translate into needed support for those who most need it.

One of the surest means of support, during the crisis and beyond, is to ensure that everyone has access to high-quality education and training after high school. We’ve seen from the evidence how virtually all good jobs now require something beyond a high school diploma. The pandemic has revealed this in yet another way. Pew Research found that just 1 percent of service-sector and construction workers have access to telework, compared with a quarter of workers in management, business, and financial occupations and 14 percent of professional workers such as lawyers and engineers.

Over the past five years, Lumina Foundation has been working with 15 states and several support organizations to make serving adult learners more of a strategic priority. We call this effort Adult Promise. These states are improving access to financial supports, developing more adult-friendly academic programs, and actively encouraging adults to enroll for the first time or to come back to finish the credential they started.

We are especially proud of these states for making the shift from seeing adult learners as a niche population for a stand-alone program to understanding them as a strategic population for the state to serve in the long-term.

These states’ commitment to adults should serve as a model for the rest of the country — and should not falter in these troubled times. And there’s reason to believe that the commitments are intact. Many of these states have developed centralized websites with resources for students, faculty, staff, and other postsecondary actors during the COVID-19 crisis, including the California Community Colleges (which also set up a relief and recovery fund), Minnesota Office of Higher Education, Oklahoma Board of Regents, University of North Carolina System and North Carolina Community College System, and Washington Student Achievement Council. New Jersey has even created a jobs board for the new opportunities opened by COVID-19 response efforts.

These are important efforts, to be sure. But real progress means using this opportunity to plan for the education system we need after COVID. We should act now to make sure that a year from now we have an education system that is flexible and can respond to the social and economic demands at that time, whatever they may be.

In the short term, yes, we must preserve the essential safety net programs such as unemployment insurance and relief from evictions, public benefit cutoffs, and utility shutoffs. But we also need to be asking ourselves what we want to prepare these newly precarious workers to do when they are preparing to re-enter the workforce. In the 2008 recession, we saved essential economic engines and institutions, but the economic turnaround wasn’t felt by many Americans for several years, if ever. Racial wealth gaps have persisted and grown since the recession.

We must do better this time around. And that starts by demanding that our officials design interventions that anticipate the long game by asking questions like:

  • Do various financial supports for affected families line up? As the federal government looks to help bills get paid for the next couple of months, are states and communities identifying and communicating about the opportunities for re-employment or re-skilling? States and providers can take advantage of new federal relief for student loan borrowers to help prospective adult learners rehabilitate defaulted loans, re-activate financial aid eligibility, and enroll in new programs this fall and early in 2021.
  • Recessions typically mean higher postsecondary enrollment rates. But the pandemic has forced most programs to go online-only, will hit state tax revenues hard, and is putting significant new pressure on many colleges and universities that may have already been financially strapped. Will our postsecondary system — especially front-line adult-serving institutions like community colleges and regional comprehensive universities — be ready to handle increased enrollment? Will prospective students have confidence that the system can serve them well?
  • For students already in post-high school learning programs, are systems and institutions alike preparing to offer emergency support right now and extra provisions when the COVID-19 crisis ends to make up for the loss of learning? For example, institutions moving to pass/fail courses this term should also work to ensure that those credits can transfer and count for satisfactory academic progress so students can maintain financial aid awards and keep making progress come fall.

COVID-19 is accelerating trends and revealing weaknesses in the American economy that were already there. So we must reconsider our goals for those facing unemployment, reduction in hours, or other direct threats. We don’t know how long these effects will last, but they are likely to spark significant shifts in the composition of the American workforce, especially in small and midsize businesses.

We can see now, perhaps more clearly than before, the connections between education and work. Too often in the past, we’ve paid insufficient attention to those connections, viewing education as a short phase of life rather than a lifelong requirement linked with workforce opportunities.

We’ve known for a long time that we can do better. Now we know that we must do better — for the pandemic recovery and for the future of the country after COVID. The only way to do that is to shift to a coordinated, national response with federal, state, and local actors working together to achieve the same goals.

The article has also been published by Higher Learning Advocates.

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