For College Students, It’s Also An Employment Crisis

“The first thing that plague brought to our town was exile… This sense of being abandoned.”
- Albert Camus, The Plague

Normally I write about the skills gap, but these days I’m thinking about many different gaps. We face a manufacturing gap for masks and medical equipment, and a physical gap for social distancing. I have severe cognitive dissonance when, within a week, an otherwise healthy 44-year-old law school classmate is put on a ventilator at NYU Hospital. Then there’s the gap between the reality of a lack of effective treatment and Trump fantasy drugs, which underscores the gap of lack of honest leadership, at least at the federal level.

The quotidian gap at home is between regular school and varyingly halting and heroic efforts to replicate it online. Leo, our 8th grader, is Zooming nearly non-stop, including symphony where he plays trumpet online. 5th grade Hal seems to spend more time discussing Zoom virtual backgrounds than actually learning, and PE class involves noisily running up and down the stairs 20 times. Zev, our 3rd grader, finishes his work in 15 minutes, bugs us to let him play videogames, but settles for magic. Zev was always interested in magic, primarily in tricking his mother to agree to things I already said no to. But now he’s teaching himself card tricks via Youtube. The problem is that his audience is limited to the four of us, and our dog Henry who's not great at picking cards.

Another form of magic is getting paid for something you’re not providing – a trick thousands of colleges and universities have learned. While some institutions have already announced plans to provide prorated refunds for room and board, many less selective schools are “not in a financial position to offer any rebates on housing or meal plans,” leading Mark Kantrowitz to predict that such colleges “will face class action lawsuits… [because] you can’t charge for goods and services that you don’t provide.” Universities like Harvard that are refunding room and board are reducing expenses by laying off dining hall workers. (Harvard is providing 30 days pay for employees, but nothing for subcontracted workers. Note for that an institution with an endowment that’s probably still over $35B, and with a mission of striving “toward a more just, fair, and promising world,” it might be more just and fair to ask its thousands of employees making more than $100k to take temporary pay cut of 1-2% to save the same amount of money.)

The gap between rich campus-based learning and its shabby online cousin is eliciting complaints from students around the country, as well as Fox News’ Tucker Carlson who, like a broken clock, may be right from time to time. Last week, Carlson excoriated Stanford and Harvard for failing to discount tuition by a “single cent… despite being denied everything that makes an expensive college expensive.” As one student told The Guardian: “We’ve missed out on quite a lot of things. We don’t have a graduation date to look forward to any more. A lot of people are demotivated to do the work. The tuition fees pay for libraries and upkeep of buildings. We are not allowed to use any of that. We are not getting what we paid for.” Sure, some students might benefit, forced to learn in a new way. But most simply won't learn as much, or at all, particularly given that these courses aren’t “well-considered, durable online learning” but rather, as Susan Grajek of Educause notes, “remote learning… quick, ad hoc, low-fidelity mitigation strategies.” Michigan’s Department of Education acknowledged as much last week when it announced that online seat time wouldn’t count toward required annual instructional hours for K-12 public schools. Nevertheless, colleges and universities across the nation are holding the line on tuition despite Fox News rants and petitions.

In College Disrupted: The Great Unbundling of Higher Education, I characterized bachelor’s degrees as bundles of services: academic programs, but also admissions, healthcare, sports, research, credentialing, housing, and dining. All these services have been so inextricably bound together under the banner of college that, back in 2015, I had to scrounge around for an unbundled example, citing the University of Coventry in the UK which launched a 50% discount no-frills degree for students willing to accept limited contact hours and no access to IT, the library, athletic facilities or social activities.

With COVID-19, unbundling – albeit without a discount – is now omnipresent as online college foregoes most ancillary services, including the most important of all: helping students launch careers and avoid student loan default by way of a good first job. While all career services offices have online platforms like Handshake, the meat – career fairs and on-campus interviews – has been removed from the career services sandwich. The challenge is that much greater because while college time inexorably – if unbundledly – rolls on, economic time has stopped. Mounting layoffs will lead to hundreds of thousands of rescinded job offers, or offers not made, including to formerly underemployed and now unemployed recent graduates working in food service or retail. Even if college career services could be fully replicated online, there’s no one on the other side to answer the call. As the New York Times suggested, “The best place to get a job right now might be the unemployment office.” While faculty-centric higher education institutions are stopping economic time for their faculty by extending tenure clocks, no plans are afoot to help students graduating into a job market that will make the Great Recession look like a tempest in a teapot.

How can colleges and universities ensure that the last wave of Millennial college graduates doesn’t follow in the footsteps of the first wave, which graduated into the Great Recession? How can we keep the challenged Millennial generation from going out as they came in i.e., as labor market exiles? While career services offices continue to doze, a raft of new tools have emerged to help students better connect to jobs, mostly digitally. Here are a few obvious things colleges and universities should be doing immediately:

1. Connect students to a range of newly available online career exploration resources and short courses. Career exploration should include not only guided tours of industries and entry-level job roles, but also strategies for landing jobs, including whom to reach out to and network with.

2. Provide students with individualized career assessments. Companies like Avenica are now offering up their national network of industry- and employer-connected talent advisors for career readiness and pathway assessments, including job search strategies and interview coaching, and potentially free last-mile training.

3. Implement digital credentialing to make students’ skills visible to employers. Students can export discrete skills-based digital credentials to LinkedIn and other platforms.

4. Provide resume optimization to get students through applicant tracking system filters. Applicant tracking systems are a huge barrier for new and recent graduates. But instead of just linking to a resume optimization resource students have to pay for (I’m looking at you, Colorado State), provide it to all students. VMock has over a hundred higher education clients, mostly business schools, which tend to be ahead of the curve on employability.

5. Provide students with online work experience. New marketplaces connecting school and work like Riipen aggregate and facilitate digital projects from real employers so that college and university students can gain relevant work experience.

These are the minimum steps every college and university should be taking now. But it won't be enough, not nearly. What’s better than virtual projects? Real work experience, particularly for a generation that has engaged in paid work at a significantly lower rate than prior generations. During the last economic disruption of comparable scale – the Great Depression – FDR put 750,000 Americans under the age of 25 to work within three months through the Civilian Conservation Corps. The purpose of the CCC was not only to give these young Americans something to do and a sense of purpose, but also to increase employability for when the economy bounced back. The CCC had to be creative about coming up with projects, resulting in wonders like the Blue Ridge Parkway. We don’t have to be nearly as creative today. There is – and will be for the foreseeable future – an urgent need for medical assistants, lab techs, decontamination workers, contact tracers, symptom reporters, customer service representatives for health providers and public health agencies, digital marketers to promote social distancing, food deliverers, and security guards (keeping elderly and immunocompromised Americans safe). According to Ezekiel Emanuel, “Educated laypeople can be trained in weeks as respiratory therapists under the supervision of a certified respiratory therapist.”

In the age of Trump it’s unrealistic to expect federal leadership that’s both bold and smart. But states need to begin hiring young adults with no college, some college, or new and recent graduates and launch rapid online last-mile training programs in partnership with public universities and community colleges to train workers to prevent, detect, and respond to COVID-19. New York is already discussing such an initiative on a small scale. Ambitious states might go further and guarantee further education in new pathway programs to healthcare careers.

In The Plague, Camus suggests that the only response to disaster is fraternity or community – the only path to salvation. While students undoubtedly feel isolated attempting to learn online from home, higher education institutions and states should take steps to ensure they’re not left alone to fend for themselves as they contemplate employment. Scaling state-based 21st century public health CCCs to hundreds of thousands of new workers in the next few months could make a major difference in fighting this pandemic – and ensuring a return to learning normalcy by fall – as well as in the future employment prospects of the last wave of Millennials.