CFES Brilliant Pathways has spent the last 32 years helping underserved students become college and career ready. There have been many changes to the K-12 educational landscape and higher education during that time, but none more dramatic than in the past three years.

To kick off our inaugural Brilliant Blog, we lay out the post-pandemic challenges facing K-16 education, while future posts will offer innovative ideas and plans to address them. Ideas, in the form of articles, interviews and research, will come from our staff and external thought leaders.

Let the Brilliant blogging begin …

When the impact of the damage from the COVID-19 pandemic was first assessed, it was clear that it had rocked health care and economics, but we believe that education was hit hardest. Supply chains can be repaired. Not so the severed connection between young people and pathways that lead to productive careers and happy lives.

The evidence is as overwhelming as it is concerning. National test scores in reading and math have fallen to their lowest levels in decades. Students aren’t showing up for class and they are more likely to drop out. This reflects a dangerous attitudinal shift, as young people question the value of higher education, or assume college is an unaffordable or unattainable playground for society’s chosen few.

For educators, the devastating effects of the pandemic weren’t just statistical: Teachers and students alike were genuinely traumatized. “It was like waking up from a bad dream and having the dream be real,” said Chris Bishop, the assistant head of Jeremiah Burke Academy in Dorchester, MA, a public high school in Boston. 

The pandemic has left children’s mental health and general wellbeing bruised and battered. McKinsey & Company described this deterioration of the educational journey as “unfinished learning,” a lost opportunity to complete schooling, along with an unsettling disinterest in education altogether. Unless steps are taken to address unfinished learning, today’s students will earn $70,000 less, on average, over their lifetimes, and cost the U.S. economy as much as $188 billion annually after this current cohort enters the workforce.

While all types of students experienced unfinished learning, students of color and those from low-income households were hit the hardest. Students in majority-Black schools ended the academic year six months behind in both math and reading, while students in majority-white schools ended up four months behind in math and three months behind in reading. Students in predominantly low-income schools and urban locations also lost more learning during the pandemic than their peers in high-income rural and suburban schools.

School teachers leaving the field when needed most

Meanwhile, declining prestige, low pay, increased workloads and stress have driven some 300,000 public-school teachers and other educational staff out of the field over the last three years. This 3% decline in the educator workforce, experts warn, couldn’t have come at a worse time. We are losing teachers just when we need them most, in order to ensure smaller classes, and support longer school days and summer school.5

Another troubling trend is the growing gender disparity in higher education: Increasing numbers of males continue to fall behind on every step of the academic ladder. This is not only an American phenomenon: Even in Finland, with its highly rated educational system, girls outperform boys in literacy, numeracy, science, and math. Twenty percent of girls score the highest level in reading, compared to only nine percent of boys. The same effect has been found in England and other OECD countries.

And even when generous financial support is available, male students are less interested in taking advantage of it. For instance, when wealthy donors in Kalamazoo, MI., promised to pay college tuition for all high school graduates in their city in 2005, the number of women completing college rose 45%, while men’s numbers remained unchanged. In addition, the male-to-female ratio in higher education has dipped to 40:60, and indications suggest that increasing numbers of males will continue to opt out of the college pathway.

Questioning the value of a college education

The dramatic drop in ambition is reflected in an increasing number of students who believe that college is no longer worth their time. The number of students enrolled in higher education has decreased every semester over the last three years, resulting in an enrollment drop of four million students. Perhaps the most troubling trend is that the percentage of high school students who believe in the importance of college has slipped from 74 to 41.

One reason is the significant increase in the cost of a college education. For the past 20 years, tuition and fees at national universities have increased by 134%, and in-state tuition and fees at public national universities by 171%. In contrast, the CPI inflation rate increased only 65% during that same period.7

The cumulative impact of these shifts threatens our nation’s educational system and has ominous consequences for the future of the American economy. A shortage of workers with the necessary skills and education has led to a historically high number of jobs that cannot be filled, and projections suggest that the skills gap will account for 10 million unfilled jobs in the U.S. and 85 million worldwide by 2030.

All told, fallout from the pandemic, concomitant trends in gender disparity and college admissions, along with decades of neglect of marginalized students, have added up to an avalanche of dangerous threats to the American educational system and the economy.

Addressing complex issues with an all-encompassing approach

In recent years, the nonprofit world has come to realize that complex, seemingly intractable problems must be addressed through collaborative efforts, shared data and insights, and an undeviating focus on both processes and outcomes.

Faced with the learning losses amplified by COVID-19, school districts and states have taken small steps to cover lost ground. These steps include expanded tutoring, summer learning, after-school programs, and extended school days. But while they focus on the losses specifically attributable to COVID-19, they overlook the profound issues related to a growing teacher shortage, pre-existing racial achievement disparities, the increasing gender gap, and the declining perception of the value of college education.

More effective are groups that address all or most of these varied but related issues simultaneously. Among them is CFES, whose ultimate goal has long been to promote economic development powered by an educated workforce: Equipping students with skills and education not only gives them opportunities for better jobs, but it also promotes economic growth in their communities.

In next week’s blog, we’ll share some of the ways we equip students to be successful in college and career, and some inspiring examples of students who have defied the odds to become successful professionals.