Alabama has a goal of growing its workforce to 500,000 highly skilled employees over the next five years. With an unforeseen COVID-19 pandemic, is this goal still possible?
One alarming outcome of the pandemic is the transition from traditional learning to virtual learning in both K-12 and postsecondary institutions. Lateshia C. is a 27 year old, single mother of two who attends community college with the hopes of becoming a nurse. With an unforeseen novel COVID-19 pandemic, Lateshia’s path to attaining a degree has become challenging with the college’s campus closure and transition to virtual learning only. She does not have internet in her home and new internet installation is not an essential service during the stay-at-home order. Therefore, in order to receive and complete her assignments, she has to drive nearly 20 miles from Spanish Fort to Mobile to get access to internet at her sister’s home, which causes both a health risk and an additional financial burden due to the cost of gas. Flooding on rainy days prevents her from gaining internet access and therefore negatively impacts her grades.
In Alabama Workforce Development Region 7, the Mobile Area Education Foundation facilitates a postsecondary attainment agenda known as “75,000 Degrees by 2030” (75,000 Degrees Talent Hub*). This region, like all regions in Alabama, already faces challenges to getting more citizens to and through a postsecondary pathway. Now that higher education institutions have closed their doors and transitioned all learning to virtual classrooms, challenges that already existed are amplified.
Many students rely on campus computer labs to access and complete their assignments because they can’t afford or access internet at home. When nearly 82,000 students enrolled in an Alabama two- and four-year institution receive Pell Grant funding, access to technology is an expense many can’t afford. Even if a student can afford to purchase a computer, what good is it if he or she doesn’t have access to internet or Wi-Fi?
Internet and Wi-Fi access is a bifurcated equity challenge encompassing geography and affordability. Let’s start with rural communities. As stated in a USA Today article, in nine of 67 Alabama counties, less than 30 percent of the population has access to broadband. Choctaw County only has an internet access rate of 22.8 percent. Cleburne County has a low access rate of 12.9 percent. For other Alabamians, access to internet is not based on geography, but affordability. An additional $40 to $50 a month for internet creates a hardship for many families in Alabama, which is the sixth-poorest state in the U.S. With access to broadband at such disparaging low rates, transitioning to only virtual learning further widens the gap of equitable access to earning a credential or degree.
Every day we are bombarded with data on the economic impact COVID-19 is having on our state, nation and world. We have to remember people are attached to these numbers. This brings me back to my initial question: Will we be able to fulfill our state’s postsecondary attainment goal so that we can grow our workforce to 500,000 highly skilled employees? We must. It is more pertinent than ever. In order for our state to recover from the negative economic impacts of this pandemic, we must invest in Alabama’s best asset: human capital.
As our local, state and federal leaders navigate through this pandemic, I challenge them to put the word “equity” in action. While distributing stimulus checks may address the short-term needs of some of our community members, we must also find ways to better the process of getting to and through postsecondary pathways for all Alabamians. Equitable access to quality education is not only an economic imperative, but a moral imperative, and it is the only way we will ensure 500,000 highly skilled employees in our workforce by 2025.
*The Talent Hub designation, which Lumina Foundation awards with support from The Kresge Foundation, indicates that a community has shown the capacity and capability to significantly increase the number of residents with college degrees, certificates or other credentials beyond a high school diploma.
Chandra C. Scott
Director, Strategic Outcomes
Mobile Area Education Foundation
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.
It looks like you are opening this page from the Facebook App. This article needs to be opened in the browser.
iOS: Tap the three dots in the top right, then tap on "Open in Safari".
Android: Tap the Settings icon (it looks like three horizontal lines), then tap App Settings, then toggle the "Open links externally" setting to On (it should turn from gray to blue).