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Higher ed plays a critical role in assisting communities most affected by COVID-19

Nancy Brune
Nancy Brune
regents meeting

Our latest Guinn Center report examines the confluence of systemic bias, the Great Recession, and the coronavirus pandemic. Structural barriers and systemic bias have long contributed to significant differences in household wealth, social mobility, and educational attainment – leaving our communities of color in Nevada more vulnerable to public health crises and economic downturns.

As we consider specific recommendations to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19, we believe our institutions of higher education are a critical part of the solution. As such, the decision to cut $135 million from the Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE) budget was gut-wrenching. Not because it was a bigger cut than that sustained by the K-12 education budget (whose coffers were reduced by $112 million after $50 million in CARES funds was added). But because higher education spending per full-time equivalent in Nevada remains 23 percent lower than pre-Great Recession levels (compared to K-12 per pupil spending, which is down only 5 percent). 

Even in the face of inevitable cuts to higher education budgets, we need to ensure that our Tier 1 research universities and colleges are able to continue providing educational and training programs for dislocated workers, many of whom are people of color, and continue to provide programs and support services, which have been designed to address systemic bias, close achievement gaps, and help students of color graduate. 

The economic impacts of COVID-19 are far more devastating and widespread than the Great Recession. Unemployment rates for Latinos and African Americans have been higher than for whites throughout the pandemic. The hardest hit sectors in Nevada are accommodation and food services, retail, and administrative and support services. Members of Nevada’s diverse racial and ethnic groups are overrepresented in these three sectors, and the average wage in these three sectors is at least $20,000 lower than the average wage across all sectors. 

The effects of structural barriers and systemic bias are apparent in educational attainment. People of color, who are overrepresented in low-wage sectors and experience higher rates of unemployment, have low levels of educational attainment. About 38 percent of Asian Americans and 27 percent of whites in Nevada have at least a bachelor’s degree. But only 12 percent of American Indians and Latinos have a bachelor’s degree, and only 17 of African American adults have earned that degree. Sadly, public health crises and economic downturns reveal the scabbed wounds of long-standing historical inequities and biases that manifest themselves in employment and housing patterns. 

But Nevada’s colleges and universities have taken immediate and significant measures to mitigate the short-term impacts of COVID-19 and reverse systemic biases that have compromised the promise of educational opportunity as the driver of upward mobility. 

Years of educational attainment and even higher education spending (with some caveats) are associated with economic growth. Most agree that higher education is important to overall economic development – given its ability to support innovation and stimulate the knowledge economy, and train and upskill workers. Following the Great Recession, higher education and workforce development stakeholders in Nevada came together to reboot the New Nevada Economy. It worked. As one senior higher education leader commented, “The difference between where we were after the Great Recession and where we are today [during the pandemic] is that we have real career pathways. Back then, we had nothing.”  The percentage of Nevadans with at least a bachelor’s degree has increased by 6 percentage points since the Great Recession. Our two universities have earned elite R1 (Tier 1) research status, per the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Ed. 

Nevada’s community colleges are the “first responders” in efforts to reboot Nevada’s battered economy. In response to the pandemic, Truckee Meadows Community College is launching two condensed, boot-camp training information technology (IT) programs that will address the growing demand for IT workers. College of Southern Nevada (CSN) has launched Rapid Response/RE-HIRE Centers, which offer displaced workers and limited English proficient adults access to more than 20 accelerated degree programs and 9 certificate programs in high-growth career pathways.  

To strengthen its promise of social mobility, our colleges and universities have launched programs that support students of color in culturally competent and meaningful ways. Programs like Nevada State College’s Nepantla program, Western Nevada College (WNC)’s Latino Leadership Academy, and CSN’s Empowerment Network Initiative are a few of the initiatives that are helping students graduate. For example, the three-year graduation rate for WNC’s Latino Leadership Academy participants is 44 percent, compared to WNC’s overall graduation rate of 27 percent. Additionally, colleges have increased academic advising and counseling services.

Unfortunately, budget cuts may undermine the ability of our institutions of higher education to provide much-needed support to our communities of color. For example, CSN may have to limit the number of accelerated workforce training programs geared towards displaced workers it can offer. Colleges may have to reduce advising, student services, potentially rolling back recent gains in retention and graduation. 

The road to recovery is long and will likely require additional pain. But decision makers and higher education officials should keep cuts away from those specific programs at our higher education institutions that are geared towards supporting our communities of color, which have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Eviction moratoriums and temporary increases or extensions of unemployment benefits only slow the devastation in communities of color. To truly reverse the downward spiral and promote upward mobility, we must concentrate our resources in those educational and training programs at our colleges and universities that will do the most for these communities. 

Nancy Brune, Ph.D., is the executive director of the Guinn Center.


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