Economic stimulus

Colleges students face historic challenges and will require significant federal support (opinion)

Today’s high school and college-age students have faced challenges the likes of which no generation has known since the cohort Tom Brokaw memorably christened “the greatest generation.” During the latter’s childhood, “economic despair hovered over the land like a plague,” as Brokaw wrote in his 1998 bestseller. Teens and young adults, having experienced the Great Recession of 2007-09 as children, are living through a real plague, a global battle reminiscent of the world war their grandparents or great-grandparents fought.

Born in the shadow of the horrors of Sept. 11, Gen Z’s lives thus far have been marked by one upheaval after another. Even those who come from families fortunate enough to have kept their homes and livelihoods during the Great Recession felt the strain. Levels of anxiety, depression and drug and alcohol abuse increased markedly in communities during those years and the protracted recovery that followed.

Then came the roller coaster that has defined their teens. As the recession subsided, the economy boomed, unemployment rates gradually shifted from alarming highs to the lowest levels in a half century and, for several years, Gen Z’s prospects seemed auspicious.

But last March, the world crashed in on them. Turned out of their high schools and colleges, locked down, their seemingly infinite horizon shrank to the walls of their parents’ homes. And that is for the lucky ones with homes that could accommodate them.

Much as young adults suffer more than their elders in a world war, so do they in this health crisis. They may be at less risk of death from coronavirus than those who are older, but the pandemic has devastated millions of them economically and emotionally. The unemployment rate for 16- to 24-year-olds more than tripled almost overnight, going from 7.7 percent in February to 27.4 percent in April before improving to a still daunting 14.7 percent in August. In a recent survey conducted by the Harris Poll, 16 percent of baby boomers and 6 percent of the so-called silent generation (those who preceded the baby boom) said COVID-19 has had an extreme or very negative effect on their financial security, but fully one-third of Gen Z said that. Even more, 37 percent, said the pandemic has harmed their mental health -- more than twice the number of boomers and roughly five times that of the silent generation.

As the writer Caitlin Flanagan put it in an imagined college commencement speech aimed at students who were not able to attend graduation, “History found you.” She noted, “You were never going back to college … and you never got to say goodbye to it.” She compares what happened to Gen Z last spring to what befell her father and his generation when history found them in December of 1941 after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Suddenly nearly all the young men went off to war, and their wives and girlfriends, if they weren’t among the 350,000 women who joined the armed forces, took over for men in factories and on farms.

“Maybe as very young people, you know something powerful: that you have been tested, and you did not falter,” Flanagan writes. “You kept going. And although you’re entering a very different world from the one you expected, it’s a world that needs you.”

Amen. The world doesn’t need them at present to win a world war -- and we hope that will remain the case! But their coming challenges match those of any generation. It will fall to them to reconstitute an economy and social order, even as they resurrect their own lives. The prospect of rebuilding a devastated economy while reckoning with long-standing racial and other injustices is as daunting a task as we can imagine.

They will need all the support older generations can offer. Like their forebears, they have learned at a young age “to accept a future that played out one day at a time,” as Brokaw noted of the World War II generation.

But to thrive post-pandemic, Gen Z members will need more than personal resilience. They’ll need the equivalent of the GI Bill that made it possible for many members of the World War II generation to feed and house themselves and their families and finish high school or college. And this time, the federally funded bill must be more accessible to everyone, unlike the previous one, from which Black people and women benefited much less than white people and men.

If that sounds costly, it is. But done right, the returns would be considerable: an economic boom to rival that of the postwar era and a shattered generation made whole.

We expect so much from this generation. Perhaps they will deal better than we have with climate change, inequality, systemic racism and the many other ills they are inheriting.

As Abigail Adams wrote to her son, John Quincy, in 1780, “It is not in the still calm of life or the repose of a pacific station that great characters are formed … Great necessities call out great virtues.”

We are optimistic, because we have seen the new generation in action. They have challenged and inspired us in the classroom and confronted the status quo by marching in the streets and advocating for change.

Should they succeed, historians will no doubt drop the sobriquet of Gen Z, as if they’re the last and least among us. How about this for a more appropriate name? Greatest Gen 2.0.

Barry Glassner is a professor of sociology and the former president of Lewis and Clark College. Morton Schapiro is a professor of economics and president of Northwestern University.

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A closer look at Trump's proposed apprenticeship program (essay)

Last week, President Trump announced plans for advancing apprenticeships and work-based learning as central strategies for preparing America’s work force for the jobs of the future and addressing the skills gap. Living at the intersection of education and work force development for nearly 35 years, Jobs for the Future (JFF) agrees that the expansion of earn-and-learn strategies is a legitimate response to the demand from millions in America looking to gain a stronger foothold in the labor market. That said, the devil is in the details, so we look forward to learning more about this proposal and providing input during the upcoming rule-making process.

At first glance, the initial announcement presents opportunities to deepen collaboration among community colleges, employers, labor, work force boards and other partners in developing high-quality work-based learning programs that prepare workers for the 21st-century economy. Community colleges should play a vital role in apprenticeship, providing the classroom instruction that complements on-the-job training.

In fact, community colleges’ capacity to build work-based learning strategies, in close collaboration with business, has expanded tremendously in recent years, in part due to support from the U.S. Department of Labor’s TAACCCT grant program and other public backing to build college-employer partnerships. These programs emanate from work-based learning elements such as internships and clinical practicums that are embedded in many community college certificate and degree programs.

The Apprenticeships of Today and Tomorrow

As noted last week by Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, registered apprenticeship programs have resulted in jobs paying an average of $60,000 per year. Apprenticeships continue to grow in a host of occupations, including traditional sectors such as construction, and are increasing in new ones such as IT, health care and finance. In such programs, students are hired as full-time workers, trained through a combination of hands-on and classroom training, and paid a full-time wage during the period of apprenticeship. That makes apprenticeship an attractive option for millions of middle- and low-income individuals who must work while seeking to build skills, knowledge and a career.

The Trump plan, however, also seeks to establish “Industry-recognized apprenticeships … that promote the development of apprenticeship programs by third parties … [that] may include trade and industry groups, companies, nonprofit organizations, unions, and joint labor-management organizations.” If apprenticeships of the future are to succeed, JFF strongly encourages the administration to not throw the baby out with the bathwater. As apprenticeships continue to capture the interest of policy makers, employers and career seekers, we acknowledge the registration process should be streamlined to expand development of and access to apprenticeships. However, we also urge that the apprenticeship standards be maintained in order to ensure a high baseline of quality, rigor and protections for apprentices, and not confuse or weaken this effective training model.

Specifically, JFF wants to ensure that equal opportunity and diversity continue to be a part of any work-based learning opportunity so that it’s truly a pipeline for all workers. Furthermore, all top-notch apprenticeship offerings should include a portable credential in case a worker wants or needs to work for another employer down the road, so his or her qualifications are intact.

Registered apprenticeships also ensure: alignment with industry standards, the aforementioned equity in access and participation, and the use of data for determining quality -- akin to accreditation for higher education programs. This is why an apprenticeship that is registered is often referred to as the “gold standard” of training programs. Registration sets high industry standards similar to the much-lauded models in Switzerland and Germany, and it validates an apprentice’s knowledge, skills and abilities wherever they go in that industry.

Start Students Before College

Currently, many workers access work-based learning in college and the workplace. But JFF wants to expand opportunities for young people to engage in high-quality career-focused learning earlier in their lives. We must ensure that our education systems -- K-12 as well as higher education -- provide students with a continuum of career awareness, information and exploration opportunities, as well as work-based learning experiences. When young people participate in such real-world experiences -- including pre-apprenticeships, internships, capstone projects and service learning -- not only do they transition into postsecondary education with a clearer idea of the careers and relevant programs of study they want to pursue, but they also have higher rates of college completion.

Registered apprenticeships and strong work-based learning initiatives in general are urgently needed for both youths and adults, who greatly benefit when work is combined with classroom training. We look forward to collaborating with the administration and Congress to ensure the quality and rigor of these programs and to expand and adequately fund all highly effective strategies for preparing America’s work force for the future, including those effectively in place as part of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunities Act.

With nearly seven million Americans who remain out of work and over 30 million who are without a high school diploma or its equivalent, we must employ the full range of evidence-based work force and education strategies to help all Americans get the skills they need to find family-supporting careers. This is imperative as the U.S. gap between the skills employers need and those workers have continues to grow. Community colleges and other postsecondary institutions, working with industry and other partners, can play crucial roles in the expansion of these successful initiatives.

Cassius O. Johnson is vice president of organizational strategy and policy at Jobs for the Future.

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President Trump signs executive order on the Apprenticeship and Workforce of Tomorrow initiatives.
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From Survival to Sustainability

You may think things are bad now -- and you’re right, they are. But today’s economic concerns are obscuring what may prove to be even bigger strategic challenges ahead for higher education.

Everyone knows that we’ve entered a period of profound anxiety and uncertainty. Everywhere we look -- from this publication’s own headlines, to university cabinets’ strategy sessions, to our now more thinly attended professional association meetings -- we see people devoting tremendous amounts of energy to the work of decoding the economic predicament in which we find ourselves. We’re working feverishly to understand what this economic downturn will portend for everything from bond financing to financial aid to endowment management to enrollment performance, and much else besides. In many respects, our key focus right now is survival. We are striving to protect the core of our colleges and universities. And we are hoping that higher education may yet again prove to be counter-cyclical to prevailing market conditions – a rare winner in the economic lottery.

Beyond survival, however, higher education has to be thinking about its own sustainability. Even as we struggle with present conditions, a number of farsighted universities are working hard at decoding the future, too -- because change is certainly coming. Demographics are shifting. Competition for talent is global. And the very financial structures that have supported higher education for the past 40-plus years may now be at risk.

In our current circumstances, these forward-looking universities read signs that the old ways of doing things may be approaching obsolescence. As a senior executive at one large, private university recently said to me, “We’re not persuaded that the business model or the economics of higher education are sustainable. We’re asking the question, ‘What if we were to start from scratch?’ ”

In short, now more than ever, we in higher education need to rethink our place in the economy and how we deliver value. What markets will we serve? What programs and credentials should we offer? How will they be delivered? How should we define success?

Faced with these questions, many of us will retreat to our intellectual comfort zones -- those familiar ideas supported by anecdote as often as by evidence. “Why should higher education change?” some of us will ask. “We’re doing just fine.” Others will be certain that we should follow this or that path -- stick to our knitting, or reinvent ourselves completely. But it pays to spend some time with these questions before rushing off to whatever answers may be nearest at hand. As former Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin once observed, “Some people are more certain of everything than I am of anything.” In transitional and uncertain times such as these, we should be cautious of following the lead of those who peddle certainty, those who know exactly what they think.

“It’s much harder psychologically to be unsure than it is to be sure,” wrote the investment guru Seth Klarman recently. “But uncertainty also motivates diligence, as one pursues the unattainable goal of eliminating all doubt.”

Diligence is critical to evaluating not only the challenges that higher education faces today, but also the opportunities. In a number of respects, this is a best-of-times/worst-of-times moment in higher education. For example, President Obama has asked “every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training.” The Lumina Foundation and others have called upon the higher education community to produce 16 million additional degrees by 2025. And old industries -- energy among them -- are about to become new again.

At the same time, we may at last be reaching the tuition ceiling for many parents, and there is the very real prospect of enrollments drifting toward less expensive institutions. Shrinking endowments are creating significant challenges for managing university operations. And a business model based on exclusivity does not scale; it limits the potential for impact -- whether intellectual or economic.

Growing numbers of universities see this special moment as a unique opportunity to reassess their business strategies. Developing a strategy, of course, involves not only deciding what you will offer and how you will serve the market, but also -- and just as importantly -- what you will not do. Many higher education institutions suffer from trying to be too many things to too many people -- a very risky strategy for any enterprise. If we are going to successfully protect the core, and also plan for the new realities awaiting us in the future, then we are going to have to focus our investments of time, money, and human capital.

Because higher education in the U.S. involves so many diverse types of institutions serving so many diverse markets, the choices we face as a system of higher education are myriad. But among the choices that college and university leaders must face are these: by what means can a quality institution be simultaneously selective and open? Should the institution strive to be “global” in reach or regional? Will it continue to prioritize so-called “traditional” students or adjust its operations to better serve working adults and employers? Will it emphasize a unique, place-bound experience at a single campus or the delivery education services through multiple and widely dispersed sites and online? Will it prioritize research or teaching? Will it be a leader in emerging industries? Fundamentally, what form of value will the institution create?

In conversation with university presidents, provosts, and other academic leaders over the last six months, I’ve often asked what higher education can do to avoid the classic investor error of buying high and selling low. Jack Wilson, the president of the University of Massachusetts, responded to this question by saying that he anticipated a return to “value investing” in higher education -- something akin to the longstanding investor practice of buying stocks in companies that are trading below their intrinsic value. “The last few decades, people have not thought about higher education as a place to look for value,” Jack said. “But now, they’re going to be looking for quality institutions that offer a great experience, and a great value at a great price. There’s going to be a lot of pressure on higher education institutions to get their value propositions in place.”

This is what’s coming down the track at us. We have to protect core. We have to survive. We have to stay in business. And yet at the same time, we have to create more value and become more competitive. We have to develop a focused strategy and choose from among numerous competing opportunities. And if that weren’t enough, we have to achieve all of this in a period of tremendous demographic transition.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2007, 37 percent of the U.S. population over the age of 25 had earned an associate degree or higher. That doesn’t sound altogether bad, but degree attainment rates within the U.S. have been relatively flat for decades while countries such as Canada, Japan, and Korea have advanced beyond 50 percent of their adult populations earning the equivalent of an associate degree or higher. Reading the economic tea leaves and sensing where this growing asymmetry may leave us, the Lumina Foundation has set out what it characterizes as an “audacious” goal of ensuring that 60 percent of the adult U.S. population possesses an associate degree or higher by 2025.

There are numerous challenges associated with meeting this very laudable goal. First, it represents a roughly 50 percent increase in our annual degree productivity on an annual basis for the next 16 years, and would require an effort several times the scale of the post-WWII G.I. Bill. Second, if we were to achieve it, we would have to accomplish it under circumstances in which the demography of the college age population is shifting dramatically.

Today, 29 percent of U.S. adults aged 25 to 29 possesses a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. If we disaggregate this figure by race/ethnicity, however, we see that 32 percent of whites, 19 percent of blacks, and 13 percent of Hispanics in this age group has a bachelor’s degree or higher. What makes this especially significant is that Hispanics and blacks are among the fastest growing populations within the U.S.

According to the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, in 1980, whites accounted for 82 percent of our population. In 2020, this figure is projected to be 63 percent. Over the same 40 year period, the proportion of Hispanics in our population is projected to have increased from 6 percent to 17 percent, and the proportion of blacks is projected to have increased from 10 percent to 13 percent. In a paper published in 2005, the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education goes on to argue that if current racial and ethnic enrollment gaps remain, the net result would be a projected 2 percent decline in per capita income over the period from 2000 to 2020. That may not sound like much, but consider that per capita income grew by 41 percent from 1980 to 2000. If higher education leaders don’t attend to these challenges now, the result in another 10 years’ time may well be a shrinking tax base and a weakened competitive position on the global stage.

Such an outcome would represent a more subtle but potentially longer-lasting economic downturn -- a quieter crisis, but perhaps more profound.

Changing markets call for a change in strategy. Even if it doesn’t prove necessary for most colleges and universities to “start from scratch” to respond effectively to our changing demographic profile or to global competition for the best students, it will be vital for us to move beyond our comfort zones and question some of our basic assumptions about how higher education is financed and managed -- and fundamentally reexamine which challenges and opportunities each of our thousands of colleges and universities is best positioned to address.

Now is the time to reflect on our strategic objectives, our missions, and our success measures. The institutions that are among the future leaders of U.S. higher education are likely to be those who embrace these challenges and reflect upon these questions most seriously. It may well be that we need to do something truly audacious to generate lasting value – for our institutions, our students, and our economic health.

Think about it.

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Peter Stokes
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Peter J. Stokes, is executive vice president and chief research officer at Eduventures, Inc., a higher education research and consulting firm.

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