As Washington’s K-12 and higher education leaders continue to plan what might happen this fall, the Washington Roundtable’s new report highlights what our students need to support their longer-term success. The recent report, “Path to 70% Credential Attainment: Restarting Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic,” draws our attention to the critical importance of postsecondary education to pandemic recovery. 

As the Roundtable report points out, those disproportionately affected by the public-health and economic crises are people of color, young people and those with no postsecondary credential. Job losses in Black and Latino households have been 22% to 27% higher than white households. Workers age 20 to 24 in Washington state have filed for unemployment at double the rate of people over 25. And the unemployment rate for workers with only a high school diploma is twice that of those with a bachelor’s degree or above. As we learned following the 2009 recession, these disparities, if left unaddressed, will persist and worsen during any post-pandemic recovery. 

The economic crisis created by the pandemic presents major challenges, but we cannot let current circumstances slow our state’s recent postsecondary progress. Investment in postsecondary credential attainment is one of the fundamental building blocks of economic recovery and a catapult for those furthest from opportunity. Elected officials and policymakers must support postsecondary attainment — especially for first-generation students of color — by taking strong action at the local, state and national level.

Locally, the Metropolitan King County Council should pass the King County Promise. This regional initiative focuses on building a much stronger system of advising and supports for low-income students and students from marginalized communities. It will reach high school and community college students, help them access financial aid and receive the support they need to negotiate the pandemic and stay on course to complete a postsecondary credential. The King County Promise, once fully implemented, will assist thousands of historically underserved students.

At the state level, Gov. Jay Inslee and the Legislature must prioritize higher education in the upcoming budget deliberations. The effects of dramatic cuts to higher education during the Great Recession were disastrous and must not be repeated.

Last year’s historic Workforce Education Investment Act expanded the Washington College Grant. Experts across the country hailed this as the best need-based financial-aid program in the country. Cutting the Washington College Grant would be a massive setback to the advancement of racial equity and social justice. Student success also requires the state to continue investing in guidance, quality instruction and support for the state’s two- and four-year institutions. When legislators reconvene, they will face a huge financial problem. Whatever combination of cuts and revenue they concoct to address that problem should not include cuts to higher education. As soon as it is safe to do so, students, including many who have lost their jobs at the hand of the pandemic, will be flocking to our colleges and universities for the education and training they need to help restart Washington’s economy. The Legislature must ensure that the instruction, advising and financial aid students need to succeed are there. 

The federal government must be our state’s investment partner as we move forward. The economic tsunami created by the pandemic requires that Congress act strategically and swiftly to send federal relief to states, especially for education. Washington U.S. Sen. Patty Murray’s Coronavirus Child Care and Education Relief Act would provide $345 billion nationally to stabilize and prevent cuts to education, including $132 billion in a Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund. This is the investment our students need, and it should not be a partisan issue. 

The Washington Roundtable’s report ends by pointing out how “Our state’s education systems and schools adapted in response to unprecedented challenges in the spring of 2020.” Our state should honor the hard work of our students, families, teachers, faculty and staff who, under incredibly difficult circumstances, have persisted in advancing postsecondary attainment by providing the local, state and federal resources they need to succeed.