September 25, 2020
Six months into the COVID-19 pandemic, institutions of higher education (IHEs) throughout the country are grappling with challenges unlike anything seen in the lifetimes of many. IHEs, working to bring students back to campus in the middle of a public health crisis, have seen mixed results in the efficacy of such attempts; some IHEs have implemented the robust testing regimes and social distancing protocols necessary to safely host students, while others have not. This challenge facing higher education not only affects the students who have been enrolled in the institution, but also those who are transitioning from high school to the postsecondary space. This transition, which is already difficult for many, has been made even more so as IHEs grapple with how to best operate under current conditions. COVID-19 has complicated student transitions, and as students throughout the country are re-thinking higher education enrollment, policymakers must identify and invest in supports and services that can help students make a smooth transition into the postsecondary space. This subject was the point of focus in the latest installment of Governing Principals: A Conversation with Former Governors, with The Hunt Institute sitting down with Governor Jack Markell (Governor of Delaware, 2009-2017), Governor Bob Taft (Governor of Ohio, 1999-2007), and Chancellor Eloy Oakley of the California Community College (CCC) System to discuss how federal, state, and local policymakers and stakeholders can better support students in transition during the COVID-19 pandemic and in the long-term.
“The transition from high school to higher education has always been tricky, especially for students who don’t have a cushion to fall back on whether that be a financial, emotional, or social cushion.”
– Jack Markell, Governor of Delaware, 2009-2017
A multitude of factors cause transitioning from high school to postsecondary education to be a difficult task for many. The proportion of students who plan to but do not make that transition is significant; as stated by Governor Markell, 10-20 percent of students who plan to begin their postsecondary education each fall never arrive on campus. Markell discussed the need to get to the root of this issue, knowing that the proportion of students not arriving to campus is increasing due to the pandemic. Additionally, Markell noted the need for strong collaboration between the education and business communities to ensure that students not only transition from high school to postsecondary education, but that they can graduate their postsecondary programs with skills that meet the demands of employers in an ever-changing economy.
To ensure that students have the supports needed in the transition from high school to their postsecondary education, strategies must be created to ensure that IHEs can effectively recruit and retain students. As highlighted by Governor Taft, Dayton University has done well in recruiting and retaining low-income students by offering significant financial and student support. Through this effort, Dayton University has seen strong enrollment numbers for the 2020-2021 academic year, a remarkable feat given declining enrollment seen at IHEs throughout the country. Additionally, Governor Taft touched on the investments being made by the DeWine Administration to support students in Ohio, including increased funding for social-emotional learning supports and broadband expansion. Finally, Governor Taft discussed the importance of FAFSA completion in easing student transitions, highlighting programs that have increased FAFSA completion rates by identifying FAFSA champions in each high school and conducting text messaging campaigns to encourage FAFSA completion.
“I’m a first generation student from a Mexican American background. When I was growing up college was not thought of as accessible, but community college was the door that opened for me.”
– Eloy Oakley, Chancellor, California Community College System
Identifying key players to support student transitions is critical, too. As discussed by Chancellor Oakley, community college systems throughout the country are the gateways for millions of individuals to good job opportunities. Additionally, Oakley stressed that community colleges serve every vulnerable community in America and prepare individuals for an economy where a high school degree does not carry the weight it did previously.
Following opening remarks, the panelists addressed questions pertaining to enrolling vulnerable students, collaboration between K-12 and higher education agencies, student perspectives, alignment of degree to the workforce, and remediation.
Speaking on enrolling vulnerable students was Governor Markell. Drawing from his experience in the Governor’s Office, Markell offered several suggestions for policymakers at the federal, state, and local level who are thinking about this question. First, Markell advised that IHEs should reconsider the aid packages they are offering; they must also push for federal and state support of these aid packages. Additionally, IHEs should conduct needs assessments of incoming students, identifying the prevalence of food and/or financial insecurity and rates of broadband and technological access among those students. Finally, Markell touched on the need to pair students with advisors, and do so as early as possible.
“You have to bring all players to the table and listen to them. Don’t defer to them but work towards the larger goal which is success for students – making sure they graduate with the relevant skills for our economy today.”
– Bob Taft, Governor of Ohio, 1999-2007
Governor Taft discussed K-12-IHE collaboration, reflecting on the work he did in the legislature to create a continued partnership for learning, focusing on connecting education and business. Though this partnership did not survive, Taft believes that these partnerships have significant value, pushing for states to create cradle-to-career partnerships and make them locally-focused and assembled throughout different regions of each state. Taft also advocates for including the business community in these partnerships, as representatives from this community can provide insight on what employers are looking for in the labor market.
Chancellor Oakley spoke on how the students are handling this moment, stressing the need for federal, state, and local leaders to put themselves in the shoes of those students. Oakley stated his gratefulness for the strong partnerships that have been formed between California Community Colleges, the University of California System, and the California State University System to ensure that student voices are prioritized and that strong pathways can be forged between K-12 and higher education and two-year and four-year institutions of higher education.
Finally, the panelists discussed the value of certificates, education-workforce alignment, and inclusivity. Chancellor Oakley stated the need to focus on competencies instead of conferring degrees, noting that institutions of higher education must be positioned to react swiftly to what employers demand in the labor market, understanding that those demands change quickly. Governor Taft built on Chancellor Oakley’s points, talking about the importance of strong partnerships between community colleges and employers. Oakley also talked about the need to encourage immigrant communities to participate in our education systems, noting that California Community Colleges, having the largest population of immigrant and undocumented students in the country, has been working to ensure that those student populations are included in what CCC has to offer.
The last part of the discussion focused on lessons that can be drawn from previous experiences to tackle challenges defining the current moment. Governor Markell noted that meeting great challenges is much harder than it looks, and that these challenges must be met with great humility. Governor Taft built on those points by advocating for bringing all relevant players to the table and listening to each of them carefully. Finally, Chancellor Oakley left the audience with two points: one, state and federal policymakers must prioritize broadband access, and two, the federal government must allow the states space and flexibility, as they know their students best.
In difficult moments, approaching moments with humility, empathy, and a willingness to listen is critical. Not one person has all the solutions necessary to tackle the greatest challenges of the current era, but by bringing stakeholders to the table and listening to different perspectives and needs, leaders can craft policies that represent the interests of those stakeholders and serve all students well. The pandemic exacerbated the already-pressing challenge of a large proportion of incoming postsecondary students not making it to the first day of class. Leaders must address this issue with urgency and create solutions that not only support student transitions during the pandemic, but in the long-term.
View the full webinar below.