Imagine a world where opportunities aren’t tied to the color of your skin, your place of birth, or the size of your bank account. If you are finding it difficult to picture, it is because today the opposite is true, and becoming more so every day.
Particularly in the United States, inequality is growing and social mobility is falling. COVID-19, severe job losses, and racial injustice simply magnified these trends, widening unfair gaps and exposing the daunting challenges we face. We see the increasingly dire effects of inequality on millions of people and the economies that depend on their talents.
Change is urgently needed – and higher education is the key.
We know that people with post high school degrees or credentials are more likely to have good jobs and lead healthier, more fulfilled lives. They’re also more likely to emerge successfully from economic downturns. After the Great Recession hit in 2008, many lower-skilled jobs never came back. We see echoes today as hospitality, leisure and retail jobs are lost or at risk. In the struggle to keep earning and learning, many racial and ethnic minorities are being left behind.
Profound changes caused by the pandemic and the accompanying economic crisis worsened existing challenges in the U.S. for minority, low-income, and adult learners. For those already struggling academically and financially, the pandemic added potentially insurmountable obstacles. For instance, health concerns, lack of broadband access, and loss of income restricts access and the ability for many students to enroll in college or complete a degree.
While COVID-19 widened equity gaps, these gaps have persisted for years. The latest data on people earning college degrees in the United States show a stubborn 20-percent age-point gap between Asian Americans and Whites on one hand, and Hispanics and Blacks on the other.
“The fact that not all have access to high-quality learning – and that race, ethnicity, income, and immigration status, among other factors, determine who does – is intolerable.”
This trend will continue if we don’t act quickly and intentionally. It’s our job to reach these students and help them develop and deploy their talents. The pandemic has created a unique moment where colleges and communities are quickly adapting to better serve students. Changes made now can have significant lasting effects. If we want those changes to be positive and ensure all students are successful, we need more than bandaid solutions.
We need sustained, scalable efforts – and we are seeing encouraging signs across the globe. For example, American universities are opening access and increasing support for their students. They have abandoned required entry testing, provided more faculty and administrators for student advising and counseling, changed residency requirements, and focused on student needs beyond the classroom such as food insecurities and mental health.
We have an opportunity, then, to build something better – and get back on our feet with a more effective, equitable, and efficient system of education. As demands for social justice grow, the time is right to break down barriers to learning and accelerate new paths to equity.
The university of the future will serve today’s and tomorrow’s students, who are older, more racially diverse, and face all of life’s complex issues. It will make student success – not institutional success – its main mission. It will commit to racial equity and justice. It will partner with employers to ensure that its offerings meet changing workforce needs. And it will ensure affordability without compromising quality.
Today’s crises demand that we not only imagine a better world, but create one – a future where one’s skin color or income doesn’t define our success in education, or in life.
Dr. Courtney Brown is the Vice President of Strategic Impact at Lumina Foundation, the nation’s largest private foundation focused on increasing Americans’ postsecondary success. She oversees the Foundation’s efforts in strategic planning, research, evaluation, data, and learning. She also leads Lumina’s international engagement efforts. Dr. Brown works to ensure Lumina uses data and research to inform and apply lessons to work across the Foundation. Dr. Brown received her B.A. from James Madison University and M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Virginia.