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Connect with the people and ideas reshaping higher education, written by Goldie Blumenstyk. Delivered on Wednesdays.

February 17, 2021

From: Goldie Blumenstyk

Subject: The Edge: What’s Different About This Recession and Why That Matters to Higher Ed

I’m Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer at The Chronicle covering innovation in and around academe. Here’s what I’m thinking about this week.

What’s different about this recession and why that matters to higher ed.

Maybe you’ve heard about the findings in this new survey: About half of adults in the United States who are currently unemployed, furloughed, or temporarily laid off and are looking for work “are pessimistic about their prospects for future employment,” according to the Pew Research Center. Most say they’ve seriously considered changing fields or occupations since being out of work.

If this recession were like past ones, that dire finding would at least have been encouraging for college enrollments. But with a few exceptions (like some big online universities I wrote about recently), that hasn’t been the case this time. Two reasons for that are the speed with which this economic blow struck and the magnitude of its fallout. “It didn’t give anyone time to prepare,” says Bridget Terry Long, dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “It really was a shock to the system.”

Long is no casual academic observer. A professor of economics and education, she has studied the Great Recession of 2008 and its impact on higher ed. I spoke with her last week to get her take on this recession and reaction to the Pew survey — and I learned that she is thinking a lot about how colleges and policy makers could respond to reverse the enrollment declines that now threaten the sector.

The speed factor in this recession wasn’t really on my radar until Long mentioned it, but I certainly see how it might hurt enrollment. Usually, she noted, recessions come on slowly enough that people have a little lead time to get into the back-to-school mind-set — and to stash away some money or put off a big purchase to make the move (more) affordable.

Not only that, but the so-called lockdowns that shuttered businesses and forced millions of job losses also crimped the systems that help students apply for financial aid, Long said. That process is “still too complicated,” she said, and requires assistance and internet access.

Not only did the closures disconnect many high-school students from their guidance counselors, they also threw a wrench into the operations of many college-access and work-force organizations that typically advise prospective students of all ages on enrollment in college or training programs. “Those avenues of support,” said Long, “have been shut down.”

Schools and many organizations did shift to remote counseling, but access suffered. What about adults lacking computers or Wi-Fi? “Even our public libraries had to close,” Long said.

One-third of unemployed adults say they have already taken steps to retool their skills by pursuing job-retraining programs or educational opportunities, according to the survey, which was conducted in mid-January. That figure seemed low to me, especially compared with the 38 percent who said yes when Pew asked the same question in May 2010 (Pew didn’t make a direct comparison, saying the new survey was conducted differently). Then again, in 2010, the question came further after the start of that recession. So maybe there’s still some time — and hope — for a bigger “retraining” bump this time around.

Even then, Long said, no one should expect an automatic boon to traditional higher ed. “The landscape of options has grown,” she said. And during recessions, she pointed out, employers become very attuned to the skills that employees and applicants can demonstrate. So colleges and training organizations will have to ensure that their students get those skills and can signal them.

Meanwhile, what could drive up the one-third of people pursuing further education or training is a proactive push by institutions and policy makers for community outreach, Long said, with real resources for the organizations that connect with prospective students. And higher ed has a plus on its side now, she added, that it didn’t a decade ago: The pandemic has changed attitudes and built capacity around online education. Her own grad school found that this year when it opened up enrollment online to a cohort of working students. “It changes who we can engage,” said Long, “and how we can engage with them.”

Two more survey findings, on unemployment among college grads.

The Pew survey also shows a key way the Covid-19 recession has been similar to the prior one. Over all, pandemic-related unemployment for people with at least a bachelor’s degree is markedly lower than it has been for those with less education.

Still, a related stat stood out to me: Unemployed adults with a bachelor’s degree or more education (65 percent) are more likely than those without a four-year college degree (54 percent) to say they have experienced more emotional or mental-health issues than usual as a result of being unemployed.

The Pew expert I spoke with said she couldn’t speculate on the reasons for that. I have my own theory, though. Perhaps these degree holders expected that their education would protect them in a financial crisis, and when it didn’t, they were understandably shaken. It’s a good reminder: Degrees are important, but they’re not a guarantee.

More of this, please: Help with the logistics and ethics of vaccine distribution.

Three weeks ago, the Hillel chapter at George Washington University began working with a local Jewish community center to help older residents of the D.C. region navigate the digital obstacles to sign up for coveted Covid-19 vaccines. Tech-savvy college students stepping up? Cool, I thought — not to mention a great model for all sorts of other student groups.

The project has since expanded, with more than 250 students and alumni from GW and neighboring colleges now volunteering to help seniors get appointments for the jab. And the effort is going national. The Hillel chapter is sharing its training materials and FAQs with an organization called Repair the World so that volunteers in other communities can work with local organizations to offer a similar service. Adena Kirstein, executive director of the GW Hillel chapter, said Repair the World, which is better positioned to scale up the program, could be promoting new partnerships within weeks.

Kirstein, a social worker by training, expected the program to be popular with older people, many of whom “have been incredibly isolated for a long time,” she said. But students’ enthusiasm surprised her. “I can’t tell you how many volunteers are thanking me,” she told me this week. Until a greater supply of vaccines puts the project “out of business,” she said, she’s mindful of the racial and economic inequities of vaccine distribution and hopes to extend’s Hillel’s partnership to a community group more closely connected to underserved populations.

I’ve become as fascinated with the ethics of who gets the vaccine as I was with the ethics of universal mask wearing (I’m still hardcore on the latter; I just trust that by now you’ve all heard enough from me on that). If you share this interest, check out these perspectives from Laurie Zoloth, a professor of religion and ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School, who discusses not only the moral duty of getting vaccinated but also how to weigh factors like efficiency, historic health disparities, and the need to protect essential workers in setting social and personal priorities for who goes to the head of the line.

“One of the tragedies of the pandemic has been the way it has revealed stark inequities, including higher death rates for Black and Latinx Americans,” Zoloth says in the UChicago News article. “Even if we can’t remedy decades of oppression, we have a chance to be intentional about equity as we distribute the vaccine.” She also offers some timely reminders that both masks and vaccines are part of our ethical duty to one another: “Social solidarity is the most precious tenet of our democracy.”

And for anyone, like me, trying to keep their own moral center and equanimity as we hear about line jumpers, Zoloth’s story about her mother is a tonic: “She just turned 100. And the other day she said to me on the phone, ‘You know Laurie, I’m not sure it’s fair that I’m about to get the vaccine — there are a lot of old and sick people out there!’”

Got a tip you’d like to share or a question you’d like me to answer? Let me know, at goldie@chronicle.com. If you have been forwarded this newsletter and would like to see past issues, find them here. To receive your own copy, free, register here. If you want to follow me on Twitter, @GoldieStandard is my handle.

Goldie’s Weekly Picks
The veteran reporter Goldie Blumenstyk writes a weekly newsletter, The Edge, about the people, ideas, and trends changing higher education. Find her on Twitter @GoldieStandard. She is also the author of the bestselling book American Higher Education in Crisis? What Everyone Needs to Know.