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Workforce development, K-12 teacher shortages top list of state higher ed leaders’ concerns

By Natalie Schwartz and published by

Dive Brief:

  • Improving workforce development and addressing K-12 teacher shortages are top of mind for state higher education leaders as the 2023 legislative sessions begin, according to a new survey from the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association.

  • Roughly 95% of surveyed higher education leaders called those issues either important or very important. Filling out the remaining top five most important issues were state funding for financial aid programs, state operating support for public colleges, and the value proposition of higher education.

  • The survey also pinpointed two rising issues — or topics generating news coverage and prompting important discussions. They are the twin matters of student health and safety, and student basic needs, such as food and housing.

Dive Insight:

State higher education leaders have reason to be cautiously optimistic about 2023, according to the report.

That’s because many states have budget surpluses due to careful spending during the pandemic and a strong economic recovery. However, higher education officials are also dealing with old and new issues alike, including soaring inflation, competition for public investment and signs of a looming recession.

Moreover, the pandemic is still harming higher education’s ability to provide a pipeline to the workforce. Waves of workers left their jobs when the health crisis started and have yet to return. That’s left a shortfall of roughly 3.5 million workers compared to pre-pandemic projections of the labor force, according to a November speech by Jerome Powell, Federal Reserve chair.

SHEEO’s report highlighted several state initiatives meant to address these issues.

In December, for instance, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson announced the state’s higher education and workforce development department was awarding $20 million in grants to some two dozen colleges. The funding is meant in part to address the pandemic’s effects on agriculture and supply chains, according to the announcement.

Worker shortages during the pandemic also fell hard on the teaching profession. A working paper from August estimated 36,000 K-12 teaching positions are vacant and roughly 163,000 roles are filled by underqualified teachers.

These issues are critical to higher education, SHEEO notes. Colleges rely on the K-12 system to prepare students for their curriculum. Meanwhile, colleges are also responsible for helping graduate more qualified teachers.

State lawmakers are attempting to address these issues. Michigan lawmakers, for instance, recently approved a 2023 state budget providing $305 million to pay tuition and other costs for people who want to be teachers, The Center Square reported.

SHEEO survey respondents also expressed concerns about perennial issues in higher education. More than 9 in 10 said addressing equity gaps and college affordability were either important or very important.

Slightly lower shares said the same of enrollment declines, state funding for financial aid programs, higher education’s value proposition, public perception of higher education and state operating support for public colleges.

Of less concern to state higher education officials was immigration and undocumented students, with less than 20% of those surveyed describing this issue as important or very important. Concerns about academic freedom and the pandemic’s effects on institutions were also relatively low, with fewer than 30% of respondents calling each of those factors important.

The online survey was sent to 61 SHEEO members in late November and closed in mid-December.

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