We cannot go back to the way things were. When it comes to reopening our colleges and universities in the wake of COVID-19, business as usual just won’t cut it. That’s the message from a groundbreaking report, Recovery with Equity: A Roadmap for Higher Education After the Pandemic published by the Governor’s Council for Postsecondary Education, that also follows the California Community Colleges guiding principles.

At its essence, Recovery with Equity: A Roadmap for Higher Education validates the goals and objectives set forth in the California Community Colleges Vision for Success, including closing equity and achievement gaps that for far too long have left our most vulnerable and most underserved communities behind. Launched in 2017, the Vision for Success offers a detailed roadmap to dramatically improve student achievement by affecting profound, systemwide reforms. That includes diversifying faculty and professional staff and eliminating barriers such as flawed and outdated standardized tests that have pigeonholed students into a cycle of needless remedial courses keeping them from achieving their goals and exacerbating inequities.

The Recovery with Equity taskforce that put together the 88-page report identified four guiding principles in moving forward: fostering inclusive institutions; streamlining pathways to degrees; facilitating student transitions; and simplifying supports for student stability.

  • Fostering inclusive institutions includes improving the diversity of faculty, staff and administrators, something the Vision for Success Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Task Force is addressing by focusing on supporting colleges in redesigning leadership and talent pipelines to build a more diverse workforce that can understand the barriers that students face – especially those from underrepresented communities.
  • Streamlining pathways to degrees is at the core of the Guided Pathways initiative and Assembly Bill 705, the latter of which has significantly expanded the number of students enrolling in and passing college-level courses in math and English. Streamlining pathways to degrees also means an integrated admissions and transfer platform for all of California’s higher education systems “to replace the currently overwhelming and byzantine application and transfer processes,” all of which would reduce excess credit accumulation – another key goal in the Vision for Success.
  • Supporting college preparation and early college credit opportunities are among the goals articulated under Recovery with Equity’s guiding principle of facilitating student transitions; improving college affordability is among the goals articulated under Recovery with Equity’s guiding principle of simplifying supports for student stability. Both also are included in the California Community Colleges foundational principles, the Vision for Success, the Guided Pathways framework and reforms advocated for in Cal Grant funding.

The challenges are hardly insurmountable. As the Recovery with Equity report notes, it was clear long before the pandemic that too many Californians are facing structural barriers limiting their opportunity to earn a college degree. Culturally competent teaching and learning practices, re-envisioning curricula, embracing practices based in research – all are vital in cultivating inclusive, engaging and equity-oriented learning environments.

“Historic inequities make these obstacles steeper for students who are Black, Latinx, Asian Pacific Islander, or Indigenous,” states the report. “The pandemic magnified stresses for students, leading some to stop out, drop out, and underperform, as mental health and other challenges became more acute. As a result, far too many are not realizing their goal of earning a degree, at the same time that California needs more college graduates to provide the workforce talent to meet future economic demands.”

With an economy growing in its complexity and demand for new skills steadily escalating, California is falling short on the number of college degree holders to meet its workforce needs. One in three jobs in California requires some college but less than a bachelor’s degree. Students who leave with career education credentials and certificates see an average 20% increase in earnings. Meanwhile, underserved communities, the largest segment of students in the state’s public high schools, are less likely than their peers to earn a diploma and secure a college education, leaving a behind a bounty of potential.

All of us – including business and K-12 leaders, student organizations, Academic Senates, state policymakers, college chancellor’s, presidents and more – must work together to affect the kind of change needed for our state to survive. We simply cannot return to the inequities of the past.