Colleges need to play a role in rebuilding the economy, panelists say
At Virginia Tech forum, Barkin and Moret say post-pandemic recovery will lean on institutions
As Virginia moves into its recovery phase from the COVID-19 pandemic, economic leaders say there is work to be done to support college students and Virginians who are changing careers, especially in terms of equal opportunities.
Thomas Barkin, president and CEO of the Richmond Federal Reserve Bank, and Virginia Economic Development Partnership President and CEO Stephen Moret discussed the role of higher education institutions in rebuilding the economy during the Vibrant Virginia Virtual Forum Series hosted by Virginia Tech on Friday.
“I think one of our really big challenges is how do we get those people back into the workforce,” Barkin said of students and adult learners. “And in many cases, they’ll be back in jobs they had before … but in many cases they won’t. There’s an opportunity to extend what’s been innovated in online learning into retraining.”
While colleges, universities and workplaces transitioned into virtual working and learning experiences, the inequities present in higher education became more clear, panelists agreed. Those who were already struggling financially before the pandemic were affected more during it.
“In general, folks who have less than a college degree face much more economic impact than those who have a college degree,” Moret said. “This is something that’s had a tremendously negative impact on our country, but it’s an impact that’s been even more harshly felt by certain sectors and certain types of individuals.” Panelists also said that degree and certification rates are down as the result of the pandemic, largely due to the inequities that exist with broadband access, which has been held back in many rural areas because of the expense in building the “final mile” to individual homes.
“We’re actually dealing with multiple crises in higher education and society,” said James Madison University President Jonathan Alger. “The pandemic itself had brought to the forefront a whole series of equity issues, such as access to broadband.”
At his news conference Thursday, Gov. Ralph Northam noted that about 550,000 Virginia households lack access to broadband internet, which limits their ability to take online classes and work remotely. Although the state had budgeted about $70 million to expand access over the next two years, new spending has been paused because of the economic impact of the pandemic.
Economic boosters, including the VEDP, are champions of ubiquitous broadband access, but accomplishing that is no small task. At the pace projects and funding are moving, it will take an additional seven to eight years for all Virginians to gain broadband access, Moret said. The state is now pursuing federal funds to assist the effort, Northam said Thursday.
Panelists compared today’s higher education and workforce needs to those during the 18th and 19th century’s Industrial Revolution and post-World War II. Just as soldiers returned home from war in need of new jobs outside their military training, today’s students will need more access to digital technology training to adapt to a post-COVID-19 world, panelists said.
“The biggest problem is actually the folks who don’t complete [college degrees] and that have this huge burden of debt without getting the earnings premium associated with going to college,” Moret said. “We’ve got to deal with completion rates. We’ve got to deal with better helping students to finish college. We need to develop a more stable funding structure for public higher education in the United States.”
Also, the pandemic has put even greater strain on community colleges, which host more technical programs that require in-person training, said Virginia Western Community College President Robert H. Sandel. All in-person classes had to be put on hold until summer and fall sessions, so his college has been at work on new certification programs in the digital technology sector to continue to prepare students for the workforce.
JMU, the University of Virginia’s College at Wise and Marymount University have also invested more time and effort into creating certification programs and creating talent pipelines for its students to help boost local economies post-pandemic.
Students can prepare for the demands of a digital economy by getting additional work experience while attending school, through partnerships with regional businesses and nonprofits, panelists said, which may also help students find jobs after graduation.
“Higher education should be viewed as central to the economic recovery and moving beyond where we are,” U.Va. Wise Chancellor Donna Henry said. “In difficult times, like after World War II and the Industrial Revolution, there were investments in higher education when it was difficult to find [jobs]. I think that the commonwealth and the country really need to step up and pour more resources into higher education so that we can create the workforce that’s needed.”