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Opinion: Pandemic reveals racial inequity in college access

Ryan Fewins-Bliss

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the surface more than one crisis — a struggling economy, racial inequities, K-12 school closures and a decline in college-going activities.

After our last recession ended in 2009, we saw enormous job growth — but it was not distributed equally. According to the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, by 2016, individuals with bachelor’s degrees or more gained 8.4 million jobs as part of the post-recession recovery. Those with associate degrees and certificates gained 3.1 million jobs. And those with a high school diploma or less gained a mere 80,000 jobs.

The recovery exacerbated the divide between those with education and those without. There’s reason to believe this will happen again in our post-COVID-19 recovery. Instead of a luxury, a college education will be a requirement for the next version of our economy.

Instead of a luxury, a college education will be a requirement for the next version of our economy, Fewins-Bliss writes.

If we want people to be employed and earning a living wage, we have to invest in postsecondary education even as state and federal budgets are strained. Investment now ensures Michigan will have the talent required to return us to economic prominence. This investment will help our residents achieve financial independence, moving people off unemployment and other government support.

As our state and nation grapple with racial inequities, we face those same equity struggles in higher education access and attainment. Our state’s high school pipeline completion data for minority and disadvantaged populations is abysmally low.

A Stronger Nation report by the Lumina Foundation reported that six years after high school graduation, significantly fewer African American, Hispanic and American Indian students earned a postsecondary certificate or degree compared to white and Asian students. The Michigan League for Public Policy found Michigan ranks third worst in the nation for bachelor degrees earned by Black students. We must do better.

We’ve been working on this issue over much of my career at the Michigan College Access Network. Our postsecondary attainment rate in Michigan has grown almost 10 percentage points in the last 10 years, bringing us to 45.5% of our residents holding a certificate or degree. While we are still 14.5 percentage points away from achieving our goal of 60% attainment by the year 2030, there is clear evidence our work is paying off, despite where we still need to go.

Students, please don’t give up your college dreams because of the pandemic. Don’t let racial inequities and bias keep you away from your future. Parents and caregivers, help your students complete the FAFSA and seek scholarship support. 

Despite all that those of us working in college access do, to make sustainable futures for all Michigan students possible, our legislators and our governor must invest in education to ensure our recovery from these crises. Save lives first. Save education second.

Ryan Fewins-Bliss is executive director of the Michigan College Access Network, which aims to help students in Michigan access and attain college certificates and degrees so they can achieve a lifetime of their own goals, both economically and intellectually.