Supporting social mobility through higher education is more important than ever as the pandemic disproportionately threatens those who are economically disadvantaged.
Helping low-income and underrepresented students stay in school and earn a degree is essential not only to boost individual economic opportunity and social mobility, but also to ensure that the jobs of the future are filled by a well-educated, career-ready and diverse workforce.
The COVID-19 pandemic clearly illustrates the importance of STEM-H (science, technology, engineering, math and health care) careers. Now more than ever, we need doctors, nurses, health care managers, global health experts, computer scientists and engineers, cybersecurity experts, instructional designers, supply chain experts, data analysts and the countless other professions to keep us safe and healthy, and to sustain and grow our economy.
Prior to COVID-19, some STEM-H job openings in Virginia well exceeded the number of qualified graduates available to fill them. Old Dominion University (ODU), along with other Virginia colleges and universities, continues working to fill the tech talent pipeline by removing barriers that prevent low-income and underrepresented students from earning a degree.
But without a focused effort by higher education institutions to address the additional hurdles presented by COVID-19 and the economic downturn, otherwise bright and capable students risk falling back into a cycle of poverty when a brighter future was within their grasp.
The devastating impact extends well beyond the students who are left behind. A dramatic reduction in the number of college graduates has significant and long-term economic consequences for our region and the state.
Recent projections from SimpsonScarborough, a higher education research and marketing company, predict that four-year colleges face a decrease of up to 20% in fall enrollment as a result of the economic and personal challenges brought on by the coronavirus. The numbers for underrepresented students particularly are alarming. Nearly 32% said they are unlikely to return to college this fall or it’s too soon to say, and 64% said their plans for returning are being affected.
Well before the current crisis, ODU took a leadership role in supporting social mobility and became a nationally recognized leader with the creation of the national Center for Social Mobility in 2018. Nearly half of the university’s 3,147 new fall 2020 freshmen are first-generation college students.
The Center for Social Mobility develops strategies to expand access, affordability and completion in higher education for low-income, underrepresented minorities and first-generation students, which is critically important in the current situation.
ODU has continued to provide instruction and support services during this crisis to keep our students on track to earning their degree.
Under the most challenging personal and professional circumstances, Old Dominion faculty and staff are leading with their hearts and minds to creatively find ways to overcome the roadblocks students are facing. ODU has set up the Rise to the Challenge Fund to respond critical needs of our Monarch community.
Access to Wi-Fi hot spots and computer equipment for online coursework, continued employment for students and graduate assistants through the semester, food and shelter for students in need, and virtual academic success coaching are just a few of the ways ODU is supporting students.
To address financial crises, the university rebated fees for unused housing, meals and parking, and extended deadlines for certain bills and registration last spring. The Board of Visitors voted to keep 2020-21 tuition rates the same as 2019-20.
These accommodations not only are essential for these students, but they are critical for the economic recovery of Hampton Roads and Virginia if we are to have a ready and capable knowledge-economy workforce. There are 25,000-plus jobs being created at Amazon’s new headquarters, along with Micron Technology and other high-tech firms throughout the state, as well as those being generated by tech startups opening businesses as part of the new Norfolk Innovation Corridor.
Attaining a college degree is the key that unlocks the door to our students’ social mobility and provides job-ready graduates required to power region’s economic recovery. It is our obligation, particularly at public universities, to invest in and support our students at one of the most difficult times in our nation’s history.
Augustine O. Agho is provost and vice president for academic affairs at Old Dominion University. Contact him at: email@example.com