Recovering from COVID crisis, higher education should retool around Texas’ needs

Published 12:47 am Saturday, May 30, 2020

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Margaret Spellings

The economic calamity caused by the novel coronavirus is creating a surge in young adults with uncertain futures. Many have lost jobs or job offers, and others may leave higher education and their schooling because they can no longer afford it.

Our state’s vast and diverse system of higher education must rise to this moment. While the pandemic and related economic fallout have created unique challenges for our colleges and universities, these institutions offer a bridge to a better future for individual Texans and for our state’s economic well-being. They educate future generations of Texans, provide critical public health resources and expertise, spur innovation, and create and attract businesses to locate and remain here.

The demand for a good education has not abated; indeed, enrollment and interest in college often surges during economic downturns. And the need is certainly there, considering that 77 percent of jobs created in Texas — through the economic recovery and beyond — will require a college-level credential or degree.

Nearly every institution has adapted to online learning during the pandemic, and while there have been ups and downs, there is no doubt that institutions are now better able to deliver instruction virtually than they were three months ago. However, higher education must be creative, find new ways to meet their mission, and double down on the most efficient and effective practices to serve students in the months ahead.

Colleges and universities have been hit hard by the economic collapse. Given the budget crunches facing universities, due to both declining state revenues and economic uncertainty facing parents and students, administrators will have to set priorities and make hard choices. Leaders must especially focus on programs that put students in the workforce with high-demand skills and good wages. That helps students themselves and supports the economy as a whole.

This new phase for higher education will require far-reaching conversations about how to best deploy resources, new technology, and faculty and staff to deliver the knowledge and skills Texas students will need to succeed in a transformed job market.

Further, the college experience should be tailored to serve more people. Working adults of every age may need retraining or additional skills to adjust to workforce demands, and the state’s colleges and universities can help meet those needs.

And while the pandemic may disrupt traditional models of higher education, it cannot be allowed to impede student progress. Some may need to spend time at a community college or public university closer to home. Fortunately, we have plenty of options across the state. More than ever, it’s vital that students find efficient pathways to education and careers that will support Texas’ economic recovery and their own.

This painful economic disruption we’re all experiencing can be a turning point for our state’s higher education system. If we respond with big ideas and bold thinking, this recovery can support the education and development of Texans in ways that remake the state’s workforce.

Many lost jobs will not come back, but the people who had them remain — let’s make sure they have the skills and credentials they need to launch new and higher-paying careers that will benefit us all.

Young people, secure in their paths just a few months ago, are asking difficult questions about what comes next. We must support Texas colleges and universities in finding the right answers – they are critical to our state’s future.

Margaret Spellings is the former U.S. Secretary of Education and president of the 17-institution University of North Carolina System. She currently serves as president and CEO of Texas 2036. To learn more, visit