When I was hired to lead Kentucky’s public higher education system in 2018, I asked my staff to design a logo incorporating the words “Higher Education Matters.” Armed with charts and graphs, I embarked on a statewide listening tour to share the benefits of a college credential and hear how higher education could better meet the needs of students, employers and communities.
I learned a lot about how people in our state view higher education, both good and bad. I heard words like “life-changing,” “supportive” and “inspiring,” as well as “unaffordable,” “bureaucratic” and “irrelevant.”
This global pandemic, which has shuttered businesses and pushed first responders to the limit, has been a potent reminder that higher education does matter. In Kentucky, teaching hospitals are on the front lines testing and treating COVID-19 patients. University researchers are working around the clock to develop new tests, treatments, and vaccines. Community and technical colleges have begun manufacturing personal protective equipment. Dorms and dining halls have remained open to accommodate students with food or housing insecurity. Colleges have established WiFi hotspots to help rural and low-income students access online classes.
Despite higher education’s reputation for being slow to change, Kentucky institutions mobilized quickly and demonstrated ingenuity in a time of crisis.
Before COVID-19, I frequently called for more “disruption” in higher education. (Be careful what you wish for!) I had been encouraging our institutions to redesign instruction and services to expand access, not only for traditional students, but also for working adults, employers, and others. Not many institutions had fully embraced online or hybrid programs designed with adults in mind. Competency-based and accelerated programs were the exception rather than the rule. Employers, frustrated that graduates lacked essential employability skills, expressed their desire for more collaboration with colleges and universities.
When the worst is behind us, I believe people will be looking for more economic security and stability. The workers hit hardest by COVID-19 are in service or retail jobs, many of which may not return. These workers will need to be retrained, and they and many others may reevaluate the need for a college credential. Higher education is uniquely positioned to help people train and retrain for high-skill, high-wage jobs, not just once, but over their entire careers.
This pandemic will not be the last challenge higher education faces. As climate change worsens, natural disasters will become more frequent, creating more emergencies like the one we’re currently facing. The rise of automation will render more and more jobs obsolete. Accessibility, speed, and flexibility may become our “new normal.”
I will continue to push colleges and universities to improve online instruction and make it more affordable and accessible. If there are ways to shorten time-to-degree without sacrificing academic quality, let’s put them in place. I am encouraging our community and technical colleges especially to create more stackable credentials that quickly transition adults to new careers. If rules and regulations had to be relaxed or suspended during COVID-19, maybe they no longer serve us.
Make no mistake—weathering the financial impact of this pandemic will be difficult. As I write this, the Council on Postsecondary Education is coordinating with institutional presidents to advocate for emergency funding from our state and federal government. But in the words of Malcolm X, “Every defeat, every heartbreak, every loss, contains its own seed, its own lesson on how to improve…”
After this is over, I believe higher education will matter even more than it does today. Higher education has the knowledge, the expertise, and the partnerships with local employers and governments to adapt and respond to a rapidly changing workplace and world. Our colleges and universities have demonstrated that they are in a position to lead, not just during a pandemic, but every day.