US Education Secretary Miguel Cardona used a frustrating internet connection during a conference Q&A Monday as Exhibit 1 to make an important point: “If this isn’t a reminder that we have to close the digital divide in our country, I don’t know what is.” His online audience at the American Council on Education’s annual meeting Monday was able to hear only half of what he said, thanks to a hit-or-miss audio problem. Cardona said that many K-12 and higher-education students and teachers suffered through similar problems throughout the virtual teaching of the pandemic.
Nevertheless, what did come through were Cardona’s views on key points of interest to the higher-education audience. He touched on student loan forgiveness and college affordability but largely talked about equity.
The secretary pinpointed now as “critical time in our nation’s history” to make decisions to help students and ensure they have access to “great learning potential.” He wants higher-education leaders to “set a higher bar on reopening,” saying that “if our goal is to reopen where we were, we are going to miss the opportunity to close major gaps in achievement.” He envisions “intentional” redesign based on what’s worked and what hasn’t during the pandemic — and with a view toward the new college student: the ones who are parents, juggling courses with a full-time job and other issues. “If we’re not prepared to meet them where they are,” he wonders what chance they have to succeed.
Right now, he says, we have “an opportunity to reimagine what higher education can be for students that are coming through the pipeline right now. I hope the access they have to higher education is better than it was prior to the pandemic.”
Mental health at a worrisome point
Online education has been a double-edged sword: It has widened higher-ed’s reach but highlighted inequities with broadband access and strong connections.
“Experiences like [our on-and-off audio during this webinar] reminds me of how amazing our educators are. Not just K-12 teachers, but higher-education professors,” Cardona said. He pointed to problems not just with connectivity but with the array of real-life issues everyone has faced during the pandemic, and may continue to face, with losing loved ones, losing jobs and struggling for basic needs.
Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education and moderator of the webinar Q&A, noted that student mental health and faculty/staff mental health have topped recent ACE surveys that ask college presidents about their top concerns.
Transfer-student issues also are high on Cardona’s to-do list. In his own Connecticut district, he says he saw students struggling as many as four and five years out of high school because they weren’t easily able to transfer credits between community colleges and four-year institutions. He said the higher-education community must focus on the views of the consumer, removing any obstacles and barriers to their success.
Lifting up the underserved
Cardona held minority-serving institutions, historically Black colleges and universities, and tribal colleges in high esteem — especially for their community-building efforts during the pandemic — noting the “yeoman’s work” they’ve done to lift up traditionally underserved and underrepresented populations. He said the US needs to provide more support to these schools and students, focusing on persistent racial injustices and the haves and have-nots.
“Leadership is hard. There is no playbook for this, but it is our responsibility. We have to lead with a sense of urgency around this,” Cardona said, noting that unpopular decisions sometimes will need to be made.
“The pandemic has sharpened our sword in the fight against inequity,” he said. “It’s the right work. We can do better for our students, and I’m confident that we’re going to.”
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