The Ally: August 2020 – Jim McHale

Jim McHale
President and CEO
Woodward Hines Education Foundation

COVID-19 Has Highlighted Educational Inequities

In many ways, COVID-19 has reminded us of what we already knew about education in the State of Mississippi— that there are teacher shortages, that many Mississippians lack access to computers and internet, that the only meals many Mississippi students have access to come from school, and that these issues are disproportionately impacting low-income communities.

The mission of the Woodward Hines Education Foundation (WHEF) focuses on increasing opportunities for all Mississippians by providing direct college-access programming, support, and funding to organizations that share our goal of increasing the level of educational attainment in the state of Mississippi.

It is a fact that it is harder for people of color and people from low-income households to gain access to education beyond high school. This is true across the country, but it is especially so in Mississippi. At all levels, our education system is out of step with our needs, failing to prepare the future workforce of our state.

As essential as education is to our state, we are now experiencing a significant disruption as a result of COVID-19. A recent survey by the Strada Education Network found that 28 million Americans have cancelled their plans to enroll in college this fall. In addition, data shows a dramatic drop in financial aid applications by graduating high school seniors, indicating reduced access to college funding. That represents an expected 20 percent drop in students enrolled at our colleges and universities, the opposite of what is needed to recover.

WHEF believes that higher education in Mississippi can and should be safeguarded to improve the short and long-term outlook for economic recovery. According to a report by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, nearly all the jobs created in the recovery of the 2010 Great Recession – 11.5 million out of 11.6 million – have gone to workers with at least some postsecondary education.

As we begin to recover from the devastating economic impact of COVID-19, businesses will need skilled workers who can help communities grow as well as consumers who can afford to purchase products and services.

For Mississippi to recover from the impact of COVID-19 and build a better system for learning beyond high school, WHEF recommends the following:

  1. Establish a statewide postsecondary attainment goal, leading to improvements in college attendance, graduation rates, and meaningful employment.
  2. Reimagine state financial aid to provide funding for part-time students and adult learners seeking new skills.
  3. Focus on low-income individuals and people of color.

As we are facing unprecedented job loss and unemployment claims, education can and should be a central part of Mississippi’s economic recovery plan to provide for more stable families, social mobility.