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Students delaying college enrollment amid pandemic is a ‘major problem:’ College Promise CEO

Yahoo Finance’s Alexis Christoforous and Aarthi Swaminathan discuss the impact of the coronavirus on educatiion with Martha Kanter, College Promise CEO.

Video Transcript


ALEXIS CHRISTOPHOROUS: The coronavirus pandemic convinced hundreds of thousands of students to put off higher education. College enrollment among high school graduates fell nearly 22% in the fall compared with 2019. That's a lot of people whose lives and career aspirations have been put on hold. Joining me now is Martha Kanter. She is CEO of the nonprofit College Promise, and a former undersecretary of education during the first Obama administration.

We're also joined by Yahoo Finance's education reporter, Aarthi Swaminathan. Martha, thanks so much for being with us. Research shows the longer you're out of school, the less likely you are to return. So how troubled are you that so many students decided to defer going to college this past fall?

MARTHA KANTER: Well, I think students had to defer, many of them, because they either had to work more hours because someone in their family lost a job, or their hours were cut back or they couldn't. I think the big challenge was affording college with the high costs of college. And so there were many delays. And what we want, is for students to return.

So we need communities across this country, the mayors, the supervisors, the family members, everyone to do a call to action to get these students continuing their education. It's really a major problem in the country. Students have had to delay. And especially the high school students entering for the first time in the pandemic environment. It's really, really been tough for them, especially students that hadn't have easy access to technology or were new to some of the new ways of delivering the systems so that they could learn and continue their education.

AARTHI SWAMINATHAN: Martha, if you look at, some people call this the Lost Generation, right. So I'm very curious, what kind of scars are we going to leave five, 10 years down the road if some of these kids at home, so many who have decided not to go to school? Because the value of college is being reconsidered. So I'm curious what kind of scars we leave, that we might experience in the next decade.

MARTHA KANTER: I don't want to see any scars. So I don't want to say this is a lost generation. What I want to say is, what will we do at all levels? Federal, state, and local communities, individual schools, colleges and universities, to get students back, persisting and continuing. And so I'd like to see year-round schools for everyone.

Let's not stop. Let's not just say this is the way it is. Let's change the schedules, let's get students going year-round if that's what it takes. Afternoons, evenings. There's a huge amount to do. This is not a lost generation. This is an amazingly challenged generation and a challenge country that can make a difference for these students.

ALEXIS CHRISTOPHOROUS: You know, Martha, certainly the pandemic exacerbated things. But attending college has been on a decade-long downward trend. College enrollment nationwide fell 11% between 2011 and 2019. So what do we need to do as a nation to get young people wanting to go to college again?

MARTHA KANTER: Well, I think one reality is, the enrollment declines and upswings have to do with how many students in the pipeline for the traditional age students. But we have anywhere from 30 to 40 million adults that have had little or no college. So what I want to see and what College Promise does, is to really focus on youth and adults. At the same time, we need to have an intergenerational approach, so that a student in high school will understand that continuing on will get them that job, will allow them to be living a family sustaining wage. But at the same time, their parent needs to go in.

When I went to school, you trained for a job or multiple jobs. Now students are going to have to train for numerous jobs over a lifetime. We're going to live longer and we've got to have broader and deeper preparation for these students. So it's a big challenge, but we've got to think of the older adults who need more education, as well as youth to college.

And while there was an 11% decline in youth to college, there were enrollment declines in K-12 education. And that's going to upstart again. So we see these swings over time. You have to look decade by decade by decade. And America needs to take a long view that youth and adults, families are going to need to continue their education while they work.

I mean, we have got to be a working society and we've lost our work ethic along the way. And we've got to make more people aware that most of our students are going to work while they go to school, even in high school and middle school. And that's really something that I think we need to really reimagine. How do we integrate meaningful work, internships that are paid, not just exploratory, and give students those opportunities from high school through college and beyond?

AARTHI SWAMINATHAN: Martha, I have a two-part question for you. First one on the idea of free college. 150 years ago, we did not have free high schools. So do you think we're at an inflection point now? And also, on the incoming administration, what is going to be high on your wish list for Secretary Cardona once he's confirmed when it comes to post-secondary education?

MARTHA KANTER: Sure. So there's multiple factors affecting college going for youth and adults, like I said. And what we've seen is spiraling college costs, even in the community colleges. I've had a lot of experience in community colleges, and they were virtually free after the GI Bill. The country came forward and together said, we are going to give this benefit of college opportunity to every GI, every veteran returning.

And so what I see, is that we've got to get everyone in this country understanding that education beyond high school has got to be fundamental to the American dream, to the American life. And so we've got to work on college for all. Everyone knows that free equals paid for. It's either going to be paid for a combination of government and state government, federal government, local communities.

But for five years now, we've been studying ways that local communities and states have been finding ways to pay for things. And if the federal government and the Obama administration comes forward and adds that value. I was on a bipartisan task force for a year and a half through the Bipartisan Policy Center here in DC, they're recommending a new form called a Federal State Partnership where the Feds pay a portion, the states pay a portion, students work a little bit.

Not so much that they can't study. All the research says 10, 15 hours a week students can work or they can work in the summer and make that contribution to their education. But we've got to get more students in the pipeline. And as I said before, we've got disconnected adults. We've got so many underemployed, unemployed and the traditional age youth to college.

The other challenge is, we've never had the diversity of student population that we have today. And so we have to really educate students in new ways. And the technologies are helping us, but with the pandemic, everyone is seeing that that face-to-face is really important. What I want to see for the Biden and Biden-Harris administration, I want to see college opportunity, free community college, four-year free up to the standard poverty rate, which should be $125,000 generically across the country for students getting a four-year public education.

I'd like to dream and say even private not for profit colleges and universities could participate maybe with a matching grant from the state. Because what we want, is students to go to the best possible schools that meet their needs. And with more than 4,000 colleges and universities, students need guidance. They need counseling, especially if they come from underserved, underrepresented groups.

And then we have students, the dreamers. They can't access federal student aid. Is that fair to them when they're paying into the economy and working? No, in my view it isn't. So I'd like to see opening up doors and letting more students in so they can get to that American dream, which actually is documented in many, many research studies.

We have a research center that has several hundred studies on Promise programs and the outcomes. And so if it gives students more education beyond high school, they will live better. You will have less reliance on government subsidies and you will have more success in life over a lifetime. Just ask Tony Carnevale at the Georgetown University Center for Education and the Workforce.

ALEXIS CHRISTOPHOROUS: We're going to have to leave it there. Martha Kantor of College Promise, thanks so much. And we look forward to continuing the conversation, because we've only just, just begun I guess, talking about the changes this is going to mean for higher education. And Aarthi Swaminathan, thanks to you as well.