The Intersection

Webinar Recap: State Leaders in Higher Ed Talk COVID-19

July 1, 2020

“Today If you want a job that earns a living wage you need some kind of [postsecondary] degree.”

– Mike Krause, Executive Director, Tennessee Higher Education Commission

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt all facets of American life. Policymakers and stakeholders are working to implement strategies that will allow their communities to survive the current conditions and hopefully emerge from the pandemic stronger than ever before. These disruptions have influenced state and national leaders, including those in higher education, to re-think not only how they deliver their products and services but also how they can take action to meet the full range of needs that higher education students have.

In the first installment of State Leaders in Higher Ed Talk COVID-19, The Hunt Institute sat down with Kim Cook of the National College Attainment Network (NCAN), Mike Krause of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission and Tennessee Student Assistance Corporation (THEC/TSAC), and Dr. Kim Hunter Reed, the Commissioner of Higher Education in Louisiana. The experts discussed how states are responding to the challenges facing higher education during the pandemic and how states are marketing the value of a postsecondary degree in a time where many students and families may be rethinking their higher education plans.

Marketing the Value of a Postsecondary Education

We are trying to figure out how to have plans that allow us to stay adaptive but not make students have to defer their dream.

– Kim Hunter Reed, Commissioner of Higher Education, Louisiana Board of Regents

All experts agreed on the value of postsecondary degrees and credentials in the modern economy, and each shared their thoughts on ways to communicate that value to students and families. Krause in particular stressed the importance of building out a network of ambassadors who are embedded in communities across the state who can deliver such messages. Mike cited the work being done by the THEC/TSAC to engage with the State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE) to push others to share messages throughout the state advertising the benefits of a postsecondary degree.

Both Dr. Reed and Krause both also touted the benefits of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) completion, particularly as the outbreak of COVID-19 is leading many incoming and prospective students to re-think whether they want to defer or forgo the pursuit of a postsecondary degree. Louisiana has been at the forefront of FAFSA completion efforts, using nudges like texting students to encourage completion of the form so that they can receive the financial aid necessary to enter higher education. Those nudges and efforts, including the recently-launched FAFSA Now campaign, have had positive results: currently just over 72 percent of Louisiana students have completed the form. In Tennessee, there are efforts to use modern methods of communication to encourage higher rates of FAFSA completion for prospective students and connect with current students about their needs. From a national standing, NCAN is working to identify and bolster promising practices in marketing postsecondary degrees and pathways and working with students, including highlighting state FAFSA completion campaigns and virtual advising.

Closing Equity Gaps

“What we have learned during the pandemic and the economic downturn is that those who are being impacted the most are those who are the most vulnerable.”

– Kim Cook, Executive Director, National College Access Network (NCAN)

The pandemic’s impact on vulnerable populations and magnification of existing inequities was another dominant theme in the conversation. As stated by Cook, staying on track for greater postsecondary attainment is a key strategy to closing equity gaps in educational attainment. Cook also stressed that the pandemic had made college affordability, an already pressing issue, a much more serious obstacle to entering higher education. To address the affordability issue, NCAN has been working to advocate for increasing the size of the Pell Grant award.

The experts also discussed how the pandemic has revealed and exacerbated the serious inequities in access to broadband and technology. In Tennessee, Krause and the Tennessee Higher Education Commission understand that in the current environment, technological access has become a pre-requisite for success in higher education. Dr. Reed added that the Louisiana Board of Regents has been advocating for the expansion of internet and technological services; Dr. Reed also stated that the pandemic has revealed that in the 21st century, broadband and technological access should be viewed under the same light as access to water and electricity.

Looking Forward: Greatest Challenges and Opportunities

To close the discussion, The Hunt Institute asked the three panelists about the greatest challenges and opportunities to close existing inequities in the long-term. The experts touched on a number of important issues including the impact of federal stimulus funding, opportunities to rethink alignment of credentials with workforce needs, and the need to create strong but flexible pathways that can persist through times of crisis.

COVID-19 has forced all areas of American life to adjust to the current conditions, but it also brings the opportunity to think about how to create a post-pandemic world where all current, incoming, and prospective students have access to the tools and pathways necessary to pursue a postsecondary degree and enter the 21st labor market well-prepared. That world may look quite different compared to the world we lived in before the pandemic, but if policymakers and stakeholders can work together and share ideas on how to solve current challenges and create new opportunities, that different world will serve its citizens in a way it has not been able to do previously.

View the complete webinar below.

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