One day this past winter, as Covid restrictions began to fade, professionals from our educational nonprofit CFES Brilliant Pathways met in person with students and educators in Hawaii, North Carolina, New York and Massachusetts. It was the first time in nearly two years that many of our schools had allowed visitors to enter their buildings. That same morning, two members of our team led a virtual workshop on educational transitions for counselors from 30 European nations, while that afternoon, CFES colleagues conducted college and career readiness (CCR) training for 400 high school students from across the country.
That winter day signaled to us that education and the workplace had forever changed.
We’ve entered a new era of blended remote and in-person interaction. For CFES, this new approach has removed boundaries of distance and time. We are more facile with—though some would say burned out by—Zoom, Microsoft Teams and other virtual meeting platforms, which let us interact with counselors from Prague and Dublin with an ease that hadn’t existed pre-Covid.
This digital revolution has brought educators greater power to engage and “uplift” students, especially those from underserved communities—but has also illuminated a real and serious risk that many of these students may be left even further behind if digital disparities that emerged during the pandemic aren’t addressed. Microsoft has estimated that 157 million Americans have no, or very slow, internet access. That digital chasm could be seen across rural America, where students are still trying to catch up from missing months on online instruction. The same goes for students in urban areas who didn’t have access to computers or lacked support to complete assignments.
As educators and researchers dedicated to identifying and implementing evidence-based strategies for making higher education and professional training attainable for disadvantaged students, we would like to shed light on both the promise and risks of this new educational paradigm—and how parents, educators and concerned community members can leverage its new tools to ensure all students enjoy its benefits.
First, the good news: Online education has made learning possible and accessible for more people. Take asynchronous learning, implemented by necessity during the Covid crisis. By allowing students and their families, educators and business partners to access and work with recorded content at any time, we can now reach learners whose schedules may have previously precluded participation. Our monthly workshops for busy executives and parents, for example, allow them to learn about new trends in the college and career readiness space, mentoring strategies and other innovations in a way that fits their schedule.
Resetting boundaries of time and distance has led to an uptick in the numbers we can serve. In January 2022, for instance, 2,400 parents and guardians signed up for virtual training to become college and career advisors for their children. Two years earlier, we would have struggled to reach an audience of two or three dozen.
The digital revolution in education has also allowed educators to scale their impact in unprecedented ways. Because of it, we can realistically envision serving not just hundreds, but hundreds of thousands of students, their families and teachers as well as our partners in business and higher education.
In addition, the digital revolution has opened up new opportunities in the world of work. Flexible schedules, remote learning and broader job opportunities have also reduced barriers for many. Prior to the pandemic, 10%of the U.S. labor force worked remotely. Today, that figure has jumped to 50%. We expect that rates of remote work will eventually level out, with 25%of the 160-million American labor force permanently remaining remote. This trend holds significant promise for reversing rural America’s brain drain, since increasing numbers of young people with high-wage jobs can now return to their hometowns and work remotely.
Remote work, telemedicine, virtual campus tours and expanded online learning are just a few of the benefits of the digital revolution in education and work. But while the new paradigm has increased efficiency and reduced barriers for many, it has also brought a host of challenges:
- More than half (57%) of educators say they have not received the training they need to teach remote classes.
- Nearly a quarter of all students are still chronically absent.
- Nearly half (44%) of all students are experiencing poor mental health, feeling persistently sad or hopeless.
- Over one million businesses can’t find enough employees to run effectively, forcing thousands of businesses to close their doors permanently.
What’s even more troubling is the new paradigm has adversely affected low-income populations far more than their upper-income peers. Compare, for example, well-endowed, big-brand colleges and universities to their less-endowed, less-prestigious counterparts. Applications to Colgate University soared 146% since the pandemic, and every Ivy League school saw a robust increase in its applicant pool over this same period. In contrast, community college enrollment, which disproportionately comprises low-income students, is down 10% over the past two years.
The digital revolution has introduced other inequalities as well. Another Covid-sparked innovation is workplace flexibility, which can improve mental and physical health, work-life balance and time spent with children. However, most jobs allowing remote work require at least some college. For example, 75% of marketing/advertising employees can work remotely, versus 6% in the food and beverage industry, many of whom have no college experience and work at minimum wage. The pandemic and the digital innovations that emerged to allow virtual education and work have also widened inequities in other ways:
- Learning loss has disproportionately affected low-income students.
- Nationwide, an estimated 3 million vulnerable students—those who are homeless, in foster care, have disabilities or are non-native English speakers—did not attend school at all during the pandemic.
- Over the past two years, FAFSA submissions—the ticket to financial aid at higher ed institutions across the U.S.—have declined by 7% at high schools in low-income communities.
So how can we, as concerned community members, help vulnerable students bridge the digital divide? The route to socioeconomic opportunity is tied to college and workplace readiness, and young people with no role models for college-going or professional careers in their families or close social circles need individualized personal guidance to attain—and retain—a college-going mindset. One way to help is by becoming a trained and certified college and career readiness advisor to create opportunities for the next generation. CFES professional staff train CCR advisors on how to help students fill out the FAFSA, identify majors, complete college applications and teach essential skills like perseverance to be successful once in college. They also work with new CCR advisors on how to best engage with new learning platforms and understand today’s workplace and new jobs.
This training also prepares advisors to support their future advisees in:
- Exposing underserved youth to the cutting-edge jobs of today and tomorrow and support them in moving down the path to those opportunities by involving them in job shadowing and internships.
- Ensuring that low-income kids know how to pay for college and help them find the resources to pay for college. Every year, billions of dollars in scholarships and financial aid—money that could help a student get to and stay in college—goes unspent.
- Building networks for underserved youth. Advisors can serve as role models by speaking to students whose parents didn’t go to college about their own educational and career pathways.
CCR advisors not only encourage young people to work hard, earn good grades and develop essential personal and interpersonal skills, but also empower them to identify their strengths and interests and use this knowledge to map their own pathways to higher education and help steer them away from poverty, along with their entire families and communities.
Rick Dalton is founder and CEO of CFES Brilliant Pathways. Jon Reidel is director of advancement and communications at CFES Brilliant Pathways.