Earlier this month, the Department of Labor released an astounding job loss report that measures the tragic impact of COVID-19 on American colleges and universities. The report, which received very little public attention, concluded that in the higher education sector, colleges and universities have cut 650,000 jobs, a 13% workforce reduction, since February of last year. Let that sink in: 650,000 of our former colleagues have lost their jobs. This job loss number tracks very closely the estimated average 14 percent decline in institutional revenue.
The Labor Department report does not indicate the types of jobs that have been cut, but those of us who work in higher education do not need a report to tell us what is happening. Thousands of vulnerable food service workers and custodians have lost their employment as on-campus cafeterias and dorms have been shuttered. Thousands of student services workers have seen their jobs eliminated as in-person services have been replaced by less comprehensive virtual support. Thousands of adjunct faculty members have seen their courses cancelled and their paychecks eliminated as programs are consolidated and courses move online. Now, as the crisis deepens, even tenured faculty are on the chopping block. Many of these jobs will never return as campuses struggle to identify efficiencies in the face of declining enrollment.
The impact of these jobs cuts cannot be over-estimated. In the short term, hundreds of thousands of families are having trouble making rent and mortgage payments and putting food on the table. Long term, the impact may be even more devastating. For workers in their twenties, job loss may mean a promising career in higher education is at an end as they are forced into other lines of work. For older workers, their higher education careers may well be over for good. This immense job loss is not just a statistic: it represents misery, suffering, and loss of hope
Some wealthier institutions have employment termination programs to help their employees deal with job loss, but many do not, or only offer superficial assistance. Can’t we do better? Isn’t there something higher education leaders can do to help? Don’t we have a moral obligation to try? The simple answer to all of these questions is yes.
Higher education is like no other sector of the economy, because one of our prime missions is to help prepare students for the workplace. America’s 4000 higher education institutions are the premier locus for worker re-training, skills development, technology certification programs, and transformative graduate education. This gives us tools to respond to this crisis that other types of employers do not. Can’t we do something to help our own?
How about a program, coordinated by the American Council on Education, to provide free or heavily discounted education programs to higher education workers who have lost their work during the pandemic? We might ask hundreds of our best institutions to agree to make a certain number of spaces in their most valued programs – the ones most relevant to second careers or retraining – available at no cost to our colleagues who are now unemployed. Then, we could provide program information and access to application portals on a single website, so workers do not have to struggle to identify opportunities. This is no answer to those families struggling to make ends meet right now. But it could offer hope and long term assistance to those who, through no fault of their own, are now facing dire career prospects.
The lack of some comprehensive response to this job loss crisis seems heartless and irresponsible. This is a defining moral issue for higher education right now. We have to do better.