March 22, 2021
As he kicked off the American Council on Education’s virtual annual meeting, which started on Monday, U.S. Secretary of Education Dr. Miguel Cardona’s voice came out garbled at first, his image on the computer screen intermittently freezing.
But the moment of technical difficulties felt “symbolic” of what he wanted to address, he said, the educational inequities highlighted by the pandemic, like the digital divide.
“This is a perfect example … of what our students are facing,” Cardona told administrators and educators.
He noted that students aren’t just struggling with broadband access but also their own emotional and “cognitive bandwidth” as they face basic needs insecurity, job loss and the trauma of losing family members. Meanwhile, a typical student today isn’t “your typical college student you might think of twenty or thirty years ago,” he added, with increasing numbers of student parents or full-time workers, who face extra obstacles to their education during the pandemic.
“This is our opportunity as a country to make sure we … intentionally design, our higher education institutions to meet the social-emotional needs of our students, the mental health needs of our students,” he said.
Cardona’s hope for the fall is to set a “higher bar than just reopening.”
“If our goal is to re-open to where we were, we’re going to miss the opportunity to close major gaps in achievement that existed already, major gaps in access that existed before the pandemic that were worsened by the pandemic,” Cardona said. “For me, it’s really an opportunity to reimagine what higher education can be for students that are coming through the pipeline now.”
He described minority-serving institutions, like historically Black colleges and tribal colleges, as partners in that work and schools that will “prominently” figure into the department’s higher education agenda.
In general, Cardona emphasized the need for “more than symbolic partnerships” with higher education institutions to incorporate true “input from the field” in crafting policy decisions on issues like student loan debt relief, gainful employment and changes to Title IX regulations.
College and university leadership also discussed their role in critical conversations like these, especially around civic engagement and racial justice.