With our lives upended and few old certainties left standing, there is one thing we do know about this new era. The world, United States and Californian economies are in suffering. In the blink of an eye, some 5 million Californians find themselves out of work, many of them structurally unemployed and unsure of how to pivot their careers. All signs pointing to permanent shifts in what work and our educational system look like for Californians in a post COVID-19 world.
The fragility of the post-2008 recovery, which many already knew as an everyday reality, has been laid bare for all to see. For the many millions both underemployed and underpaid, the illusion of growth was just that – but COVID-19 has ripped the mask off, particularly for people of color. The need for reskilling, upskilling and career transitions are going to be essential for our economy moving forward.
California is a perfect microcosm of the United States as a whole – both the strengths and weaknesses of the nation’s economy are exaggerated here. California which is one of the richest in the nation, was also the most unequal in its income strata, and had the second-highest rate of underemployed people anywhere in the United States.
Pre-COVID-19, in 2016, the typical white family’s wealth nationally was $171,000. For Black families, median wealth was $17,600, just 10% that of white families. And for Latinx families, median wealth was $20,700, or roughly 12% that of white families. Even in employment, Black and Latinx workers were less likely to hold higher-paying jobs. Here in California, Black families were about twice more likely to be earning at low income levels than at high income levels.
That was the reality of life in California, deeply precarious, deeply inequal. Then COVID-19 hit. We now risk a generation of chronic unemployment. The careers of millions who were underpinning the new convenience gig economy may be permanently damaged – their wages terminally depressed, opportunities permanently out of reach. Data show that the COVID economy is most devastating to California’s communities of color. In just a few months, we have further cemented the divide of classes, with now 12.5% of our state unemployed.
Much of the root of the economic injustice lies in educational disparity. Compton College services area includes the cities of Compton, Lynwood, and Paramount. Only 58.9% of residents in the city of Compton, have earned a high school diploma or higher, which is significantly lower than the rate in California (i.e., 82.2%), and 9.6% hold a bachelor’s degree or higher, which is one-quarter of the rate in the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim Metro Area of 32.7%. The majority of the residents we serve in our district are people of color, 64% are Latinx and 14% are Black. Latinx students represent the largest ethnic group at Compton College, comprising 61% of the student population in 2018-19, an 11% increase compared to five years earlier. Black students represent 23% of the Compton College student population.
Part of the solution lies in access to education. In 2013, white Americans were more than twice as likely as Black Americans to receive financial help from their parents for higher education, despite the fact that black parents were more likely to spend a larger share of their resources on their children’s education. And even in education, low-income students of color are more likely to face economic barriers to completing their qualification, disproportionately burdened by rising tuition fees. These students often have to drop courses, skip semesters, or takes jobs to cover expenses. Not to mention the housing and food insecurities and homelessness faced by students of color.
The good news is that pre-COVID, in 2018, California took action and established Calbright, an online community college. The vision was to serve underemployed populations of adults working part-time or stuck in positions that don’t pay a living wage, through self-paced online learning, enabling students to quickly earn industry-recognized credentials at any stage in their career. From my perspective, Calbright is well-positioned to provide students searching for additional opportunities to improve their economic mobility – but the importance of distance learning opportunities in the current COVID-19 environment makes an even more compelling case for the model.
As we return to work post-COVID-19, California will need a way for those who cannot afford a traditional college degree, whether because of financial burdens or because of time commitment to families and jobs, to upskill. Furthermore, as many are outraged, and mourning the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Sean Reed, and Tony McDade, and countless others. We find ourselves amidst a historical period where people across our community and the nation are demanding justice and an end to systemic racism. The tragic, premature, and unjust death of Black people across the country has become all too common.
The twin crises we face, of public health and economic inequality, demand it. The question is – do we, as Californians, want to continue to provide our underserved communities with a non-profit, public option? The answer surely must be yes. We need to double down our support for new learning models with a specific mission to reach people who are not currently being served. This is why, Compton College is proud to partner with Calbright to deliver their model to potential students in our community.
Keith Curry, Ed.D., is the President/CEO of Compton College and Compton Community College District.