A post-COVID reinvention of higher education

It is no secret our postsecondary institutions have floundered during the pandemic. In October of 2020, researchers confirmed that disruptions caused by the pandemic have impacted college access, with more than 40 percent of U.S. households canceling all their plans for community college and more than 15 percent of households canceling plans for four-year schooling. Without a college education, America’s low-income students, especially students of color, are more likely to be locked out of high-quality and in-demand programs that lead to stable, high-demand job opportunities. 

Postsecondary education in America has not made the shifts it needs to prepare students for the rapid changes in the economy and society, which is why we are at risk of a new equity crisis from this pandemic. Before the pandemic, only 51 percent of Americans saw college as very important despite its clear positive impact on the lifetime earnings of college graduates. Students have cited costs, length of programs, and personal constraints as challenges to obtaining a college degree. The higher education sector needs to evolve to meet these students’ needs, as  non-traditional postsecondary opportunities help students join a rapidly changing, skill-based workforce.  

It is difficult to make changes in a crisis. Still, I know it’s possible because I’ve pushed for change in higher education, both as governor of Louisiana and as president of the University of Louisiana System. I served as governor during a period of economic recovery both from the great recession and Hurricane Katrina. When I was governor, the graduation rate for two- and four-year colleges combined increased from 37.2 percent to 41.1 percent. These successes were a testament to the great work of students and faculty and our emphasis on high standards and alignment with our postsecondary institutions with the thousands of jobs that were coming to Louisiana. 

Similarly, today our college administrators and faculty must redouble their efforts toward technical training, career certificates and other faster learning models that are affordable and lead to stable, high-demand careers. Colleges still must make it easier for students to enter the workforce by offering them the credentials they need to obtain jobs and move up in their careers, and at a cost students can afford. The path to a better postsecondary education model that leads to better workforce outcomes can start as early as middle school, by exposing students to key fields in this changing economy.  

The redesign of our higher education system needs to take place now, or we risk slowing the tide of America’s recovery from the COVID-19 crisis. Funding our higher education students with federal relief dollars helped prevent more drastic enrollment declines, but that was a quick fix in the midst of a crisis. State leaders and university administrators must now push on each other to put our workforce and students’ needs above the old established way of doing business or risk disenfranchising millions of students in this new economy.  

Bobby Jindal is the former governor of Louisiana (2008-2016) and former president of the University of Louisiana System. Follow him on Twitter: @bobbyjindal

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