The federal role for education right now, and the great need to match the unemployed with job openings

Creating a parallel higher ed system to support America through and beyond the recession and seven steps for districts to support distance learning

The impact of COVID-19 and the resulting recession on education continues to be fluid and without modern precedent. Personal finances and college balance sheets have been shredded, which has the potential to create a vicious circle of reduced financial aid and enrollment. At the same time, rampant unemployment means many will seek to enroll in programs to upskill and reskill. Parental involvement in their children’s schooling has provoked big questions as well as deep appreciation for the daily work of educators in normal times.

The federal role

After Paul Freedman and I wrote an oped in Inside Higher Ed last month urging the Department of Education to extend its emergency approvals for online program, the Department acted accordingly this month.

The federal government also passed the CARES Act, which is likely the first stimulus package that will funnel money to K–12 and higher education. Against that backdrop, Richard Price of the Christensen Institute and I authored a new policy white paper titled, “Creating seamless credit transfer: A parallel higher ed system to support America through and beyond the recession.”

The paper describes how in 2009, in the throes of the Great Recession, Washington, DC was gripped by the potential of electronic health records (EHRs) to address problems in the quality of healthcare and the cost of administration, as well as empower patients and make healthcare work better. To usher in this supposed golden era in which patients would have control of their portable medical records that they could share instantly with doctors anywhere in the country to coordinate and strengthen their care, policymakers passed the HITECH Act in February 2009, which took a significant chunk of the stimulus funding for the cause.

The spoiler alert is that EHRs haven’t resulted in anything like what the authors of that measure hoped it would—far from it—which Clayton Christensen and his coauthors predicted in their January 2009 book The Innovator’s Prescription.

We’re facing a similar moment in higher education where people are hoping to use the current challenge to create a more interoperable system of higher education in which students don’t waste their time, money and hopes on credits and courses that won’t transfer as they opt back in to education programs to upskill and, ultimately, get back to work.

In the paper, which I encourage you to read here, we present a way to avoid the outcome that occurred in health care. We recommend expanding Pell grants and other governmental financial aid so that it can be used to prove mastery on industry-valued skills that third-party credentialing bodies assess and validate. By having a third-party organization validate a student’s learning, this could allow the government to stop paying higher education based on “credit hours”—the number of hours students theoretically spend learning—and instead pay for actual student-learning outcomes that are independently verified and valued by employers. That could, at last, create a true system of competency-based learning, allow the government and students to pay providers at least in part based on outcomes, and create a system of seamless transfer that goes around institutions’ traditional roles as gatekeepers of the learning and credentials students earn.

On the topic of learning lessons from the last recession and stimulus packages and thinking through what the federal government and educators should do amidst the current recession and crisis, check out my conversation on YouTube with former West Virginia Governor Bob Wise here. Bob offered perspectives on what we can learn from the federal response to the Great Recession—what worked well and what didn’t—how it differs from today, and some principles to keep in mind as educators and policymakers move forward.

Two central points he makes are that once educators have triaged the current situation and moved beyond the turbulence of the moment, they should start to transition to focus on transforming learning more broadly. He also observed that a central difference between the last recession and this one is that this time around there’s also a much deeper crisis that goes well beyond an economic meltdown—which creates both challenges and novel opportunities.

The great matching need

This recession is different in another respect from past ones.

As the impact of COVID-19 ripples across the economy, the number of layoffs is without precedent in recent American history with a reported 22 million Americans filing for unemployment benefits in the past four weeks. Millions more will be impacted. But even as most employers lay off large numbers of employees and contractors struggle to find dependable work, there is a group of large employers hiring large numbers of employees.

Companies like Amazon, WalMart and CVS intend to hire nearly 500,000 Americans in the coming weeks, according to the Wall Street Journal. Research at the Entangled Group suggests there are an additional 20 employers that will hire substantial numbers of employees. And organizations of a variety of stripes need new healthcare workers on the front lines to assist with patient screening and care in the weeks ahead.

Although this volume of hiring will not make up for the mass layoffs, it can at least help many individuals and their families in these turbulent times and soften the blow for the American economy writ large.

But a big challenge exists.

There is no natural mechanism today to match the people being laid off to the available job openings. As a result, the time lag between when people with transferable skillsets are laid off and then hired is too long, winding and unwieldy with an uncertain outcome. The wasted time costs the individual, the nation’s taxpayers, and the national response to this pandemic.

In this piece for Forbes, I argue that companies ought to connect the education organizations with which they work into their severance and hiring functions to create a tighter feedback loop and greater visibility between firing and hiring. These education organizations—ideally platforms like Guild Education, Degreed, Coursera, and LinkedIn that have some visibility across a range of education providers—could work with the outplacement organizations that companies employ, for example, and begin to create a matching infrastructure akin to how medical students are matched into residencies. 

I encourage you to read the whole piece, “The Great Need For Matching Individual To Jobs During The Recession,” as well as two pieces my colleague, Allison Salisbury, wrote for Forbes—“Amid Mass Layoffs, Outskilling Should Become The New Normal,” and “Do Laid-Off Workers Want To Reskill? The Answer Is Yes.”

Parents Corner

Here are two articles to highlight for parents around the rapid transitions taking place in education. The main message? You’re not in this alone.

·      College-bound high school seniors on Long Island challenged by coronavirus

·      ‘Why Do I Want Digital Experiences for My Kid If It Looks Like This?’ – Experts Fear Parent Backlash Against Online Learning

Helping Districts Deal

Here are two pieces with advice for districts on how to deal with the current moment:

·      Seven Steps for Districts Navigating to Remote Learning by Michael B. Horn

·      Learning Apart, Staying Connected: A Distance Learning Playbook by Entangled Solutions

How Colleges are Coping

Here’s a trio of Future U podcasts Jeff Selingo and I recorded on the topic:

·      Managing the Coronavirus Crisis: On the Front Lines with Northeastern University

·      Keeping a University Financially Sustainable During the Coronavirus Crisis

·      Leading a Liberal Arts College During the Coronavirus Pandemic

And here’s a conversation that Kaplan’s Brandon Busteed recorded with me on some of my thoughts around what’s ahead for higher ed.

Finally, here’s some news on colleges’ financial struggles and potential closures:

·      Struggling Colleges Face Financial Nightmare With Students And Classes Off Campus

·      How Much Did Coronavirus Disruptions Affect 2 Closing Colleges?

As always, thanks for reading, listening, writing, and contributing. Stay safe and stay strong.