There is not much good news to grow out of the crisis, but there is some.
Colleges and universities have grown more attentive to their students’ vulnerabilities. Faculty members have increasingly focused on undergraduates, have adopted a more student-centric approach to teaching and have demonstrated a greater appreciation of students’ diverse needs and challenges.
At the same time, student support services have risen to the occasion, putting their services online and expanding their capacity to meet students’ mental health, food, housing and technology needs.
There is another way that higher ed can and should rise to the occasion: it must play a vital role in driving the nation’s economic recovery and providing social services to the communities it serves.
In a recent talk, Harrison Keller, the commissioner of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, offered some sage advice: if colleges and universities want state aid, they’d better play a highly visible role in advancing the post-pandemic recovery.
He’s absolutely right.
Helping our local communities is the moral thing to do. It’s also prudent politically.
Colleges are already doing a lot: establishing and staffing food pantries, connecting students and their families to the internet, distributing food and other supplies to vulnerable populations, and, perhaps most dramatically, providing housing for front-line health workers.
Let’s look at 10 other meaningful ways that colleges and universities can contribute to the post-pandemic recovery.
1. Keeping Students on Track to Graduation
Our No. 1 obligation is to ensure that our students re-enroll and progress toward their degrees. During the summer, many campuses sharply reduced tuition to maximize enrollment, but those efforts have since dissipated. Many of our students require significant increases in financial aid, and campuses mustn’t hesitate in providing this support. We also need to double down on emergency financial aid programs.
2. Retooling and Upskilling Displaced Working Adults
Lots of jobs will never come back, and not just in the retail and service sectors. Energy, commercial real estate and airlines will be especially hard hit. It’s not unlikely that in-person staffing of banks, insurance companies and other consumer-facing businesses will also fall. Our institutions need to provide working adults with a variety of options, including inexpensive two- to six-month certificate and certification programs and other workforce-aligned training programs. We need to strengthen the education and training pipeline.
3. Meeting Local, County and State Information and Educational Needs
College and university media relations, public affairs and government relations offices are well positioned to help public health authorities, community service providers and nonprofits disseminate essential information, combat disinformation, maintain informational websites and conduct educational outreach programs.
One initiative that might be especially helpful is to establish workforce data dashboards to identify skills gaps, current and emerging areas of job demand, and the educational and training requirements to qualify for those jobs.
Meanwhile, campus-run public radio and television stations can host classes and community forums, while faculty can share their expertise, make relevant academic research widely available and assist with community surveys.
4. Assisting Public Schools
Has your campus established a tutor corps, a team of academic tutors that can provide personalized assistance to elementary, middle and high school students online? Or how about supervising after-school programs? Unspent work-study money might support undergraduate jobs that can ease parents’ burdens.
5. Serving Neighboring Residents
Six months ago, two contributors to Inside Higher Ed, S. Abu Turab Rizvi and Peter Eckel, identified a variety of ways that colleges can meet community needs: through general interest lectures, reading groups, book talks, performances, job and skills workshops, and exercise classes. Their advice remains as timely now as it was then.
6. Aiding Small Businesses
Neighboring businesses need our help, not only with our patronage but also with business counseling, meeting health protocols, redesigning business plans and applying for financial assistance and loans. Wealthier institutions might provide low-interest loans. Students, too, can help small businesses with technology, marketing and social media outreach.
7. Providing Safe Spaces for Neighboring Residents
Many campus spaces are currently unused, including athletic facilities and auditoriums. These spaces might serve as testing centers, distribution centers and, hopefully, vaccination centers. These spaces might also help local K-12 schools provide socially distanced classes.
8. Offering Legal Services
The health crisis has intensified the need for legal assistance at the very time when incomes are most strained. Your campus may be able to provide legal support in areas involving bankruptcy, civil rights, criminal and social justice, DACA status, domestic violence, eviction, medical benefits, and unemployment and insurance claims.
9. Maximizing Employment to the Extent Possible
Despite strained finances, our colleges and universities have a special responsibility as nonprofits to avoid layoffs and job cuts during the pandemic and the resulting economic crisis.
10. Conducting Research
Perhaps the biggest single contribution our campuses can make to the recovery lies in our area of special expertise: research. How is your campus supporting research in epidemiology, immunology, virology and community health?
Higher education has not done a particularly effective job of conveying the value and opportunities we impart. The recovery gives us a chance to underscore our value.
Our institutions should take steps to assist our communities because this is the right thing to do. But advancing the recovery is also in our collective self-interest. Let’s be creative and mobilize on behalf of our communities and regions.
Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.