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Our country's future education depends on actions Congress takes

Our country's future education depends on actions Congress takes
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As Congress heads back into session to debate further coronavirus relief, it’s critical that recovery efforts extend to challenges and opportunities revealed by the crisis that will shape the nation’s future. And with colleges and universities plotting their course out of the pandemic, Congress must act to ensure college-age students can access higher education and the knowledge and training they’ll need to restore America’s prosperity in the coming years.

Nearly 30 million Americans are between the ages of 18 and 24. Time is running out to make sure this current generation of students is supported through this crisis. That means developing our country’s future workforce and closing gaps that impede students’ ability to succeed. The nation cannot afford an entire generation of students taking a “gap” year. 

Congress can support these students by increasing federal student financial aid by at least $12 billion, countering anticipated cuts in aid and family income. Otherwise, we risk students just sitting out a years-long recovery, depriving the country of talent we need. 

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Given the job losses that have already shaken the upcoming 2020-21 academic year, we estimate a 20 percent increase in student financial need — a figure that may well be too conservative, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). There is nothing partisan about ensuring the opportunity that’s inherent in postsecondary education — it’s a powerful engine of economic mobility that benefits every American.

Having a college degree reduces the odds of becoming unemployed. It leads to better health, lower health care costs, and increased civic engagement. It leads to jobs that are more resilient to disruption. Indeed, on any measure of wellness that demographers can devise, people who graduated from college fare significantly better than those who did not attend. 

COVID-19 has heightened this dynamic. According to a Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco report, the unemployment rate for workers with a high school diploma or less spiked by more than 12 percentage points after the pandemic began, compared to a 5.5 percentage point increase for those with a bachelor’s degree or higher.

The coronavirus also has put a cruel spotlight on the differences and difficulties many Americans face in accessing the education they will need to prosper in the years ahead. As millions of students have lost income, the NBER study found that “lower-income students are 55 percent more likely to delay graduation due to COVID-19.” Other research shows even more pronounced effects on low-income and first-generation students during severe economic downturns.  

In the last three months, more than 40 million Americans have lost jobs. Many of those jobs may never return, so Congress should consider using resources to teach and retrain workers so they can fill needed positions in higher-wage, in-demand fields. That benefits them, their families, and our country.

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Leaders can fortify these actions by ensuring students have access to federal financial aid, which would help a generation enter the workforce with high-demand skills that generate good wages and create wider economic benefits. 

Clearly, colleges and universities have been hit hard by the economic collapse. As these institutions enter a new phase, administrators and leaders will need to have ongoing, far-reaching conversations about how to ensure the safety of students, faculty and staff. They also must deploy resources and technologies to deliver the knowledge and skills that America’s higher education students will need to succeed in a transformed job market. These discussions have started but will take time.

To support this transition, we call on members of Congress to quickly approve badly needed funding — it will ensure America’s future workers can still access today the higher education they will need.

By taking action now, we won’t just address problems caused by the pandemic. We’ll create opportunities for future Americans to leave their own legacy of prosperity.

Margaret Spellings, is chief executive of Texas 2036, a non-profit organization that is focused on data-driven long term planning to address the growing challenges facing our growing state. Spellings is also a former U.S. Secretary of Education and chancellor of the University of North Carolina System. Ted Mitchell is the president of the American Council on Education (ACE) and is a former college president and top federal policymaker.