Online ed key to closing racial, class gaps

Affordable, flexible form of education desperately needed

EVEN BEFORE THE PANDEMIC, racial and class inequality was a pervasive characteristic of the American economy.  Whether measured by earnings, wealth, job quality, educational attainment, or virtually any other marker of financial and occupational well-being, minorities and immigrants have been on the receiving end of social and economic disadvantage.

As COVID-19 has spread, inequities in morbidity and mortality that derive from these underlying conditions have become nightly headlines.  Black, brown, and immigrant communities are at greater risk for contracting the virus: they are disproportionately employed in jobs that expose them to the virus, lack health insurance and sick pay, must take public transportation, and live in neighborhoods and homes that are higher in density than the more privileged.  Unemployment has spread through these populations almost as fast as the pandemic itself.

Most Americans (62 percent) are concerned about the specter of unemployment, but African Americans are more so (68 percent), and their Latino and Asian counterparts are even more worried (72 percent, respectively), according to the nationally representative Strada Network survey of 4,000 adults.

They are right to be anxious.  Over half the country reported losing a job or income last month, but 62 percent of Latinos have experienced these losses, far more than any other group in our society.  Black Americans are most likely among all ethnic groups to have been laid off, while Latinos are most likely to have had their hours or shifts reduced.

When this tragic chapter of our history comes to an end, the United States will face a monumental challenge: how to rebuild the financial underpinnings of a functioning society.  The solutions will require more than ensuring that workers find their way back to the employment they lost before COVID-19.  The economy never stands still and the same jobs may not be available.  Automation was already eliminating many low skilled jobs, increasing the demand for workers with more training and education.

The nation’s workforce is well aware of the trend.  That is why 34 percent of Americans surveyed last month say they will need more education to compete in the labor market. African Americans are among the groups most likely to say that they will need to go back into higher education to get where they need to go.  There are more than 300,000 adults in the Commonwealth (age 22-50) who are not enrolled in any form of higher education – graduated from high school, but have not attained a bachelor’s degree.

Traditional universities, like the one I lead at the moment, can serve these returning adults, but not always in the way they need.  The average age of UMass Boston’s students is 26, evidence that we already reach a large number of adult students.  But it is not a simple matter to accommodate adults who have to juggle children, jobs, elder care, and college attendance when the classes we offer are largely available during the work day.

By far the best solution is to be found in rigorous, creative online education.  All of us in higher education discovered how important distance learning is when the pandemic made on-campus classes impossible.  But to scale up on-line education, we are going to need to do much more than “translate” our current curriculum to Zoom.  We need to grow an affordable, flexible form of online education.  It will need to offer seven or eight “start times” per year; provide skills that employers are looking for; recognize prior experiential learning in a rigorous way; and support students with “wrap around” services.

This is clearly what the adult education population is looking for.  When asked what kind of college experience they most want, 53 percent responded “online,” while only 26 percent were looking for “in person” and 21 percent would prefer “employer provided.”

Meet the Author

Katherine Newman

Interim chancellor, University of Massachusetts Boston
New kinds of online programs need to be developed by institutions that take quality seriously and are here to stay.  It will create economies of scale and provide graduates with degrees they can be proud of because they are recognized far and wide as coming from excellent universities that embrace the working adult.

Katherine S. Newman is the system chancellor of academic programs at the University of Massachusetts, the interim chancellor of UMass Boston, and the Torrey Little professor of sociology at UMass Amherst.