Aaron Thompson

Aaron Thompson

As the head of public higher education in Kentucky, I’m usually asked to deliver at least one commencement address each May. If I were giving one this year, I’d probably start by offering both my congratulations and condolences.

I’m certain you never imagined your high school or college career would come to a close during a global pandemic. I’m sorry that your graduation ceremony had to be postponed or reimagined. After working for four (or more) years for a diploma or degree, drive-by parades and Zoom ceremonies are bound to feel a little anticlimactic.

If you thought you had your future figured out, now you’re probably wondering what’s next. Does the job offer I received still stand? How will I find a job with record rates of unemployment? Should I still go to college? If so, what will my freshman year look like?

The coronavirus has made an uncertain time in your lives even more uncertain.

I wish I had all the answers. Unfortunately, everyone will be living with some degree of uncertainty until the virus recedes. There is one thing, however, of which I’m certain. You will be better off with a college degree or certificate.

America began sheltering in place in March. By April, the nation’s unemployment rate had soared to 14.7%, the highest recorded rate since the Great Depression. Millions of Americans are out of work, but those without a college credential have been hardest hit. Just over 17% of high school graduates are unemployed, compared to 8.4% of college graduates.

The Pew Research Center estimates that 90% of job losses in February and March occurred in fields that could not be teleworked. So while restaurant workers and hair stylists were sidelined, teachers, stock brokers and coders were working safely from their homes.

Our economy eventually will recover, just as it did after the Great Depression and Recession. When it does, you will be in a better position to land a higher-paying, more stable job than individuals without a credential. In the decade following the Great Recession, almost all of the new jobs created (95%) required some postsecondary experience. The Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce observed, “The Great Recession decimated low-skill blue-collar and clerical jobs, whereas the recovery added primarily high-skill managerial and professional jobs.” Automation and outsourcing will only accelerate this trend.

So college graduates – be patient. You are just beginning a long career that will take many twists and turns. Your college credential signals to employers not only that you have valuable content knowledge, but that you can learn new skills and adapt to a rapidly changing workplace. If you are financially able, consider going to graduate school. People with professional degrees enjoy even greater economic security in the long run.

For high school graduates contemplating college in the fall, it may be tempting to take a gap year. You selected your college not only for its academic offerings, but also for the extracurriculars that make up campus life. To you, I offer the following advice.

  • Remember that many of the traditional gap year experiences, like foreign travel or internships, are probably not possible now. Your employment options also will be limited.
  • Colleges are working hard to ensure a quality academic experience, planning both for face-to-face and online instruction. Unlike in March, when schools had to pivot to online learning with little notice, campus leaders are taking the summer to creatively reinvent the first-year experience.
  • If concerns about safety or finances mean a four-year university is off the table for now, consider taking some general education courses at your local KCTCS campus. These courses are less expensive, and they will transfer to any four-year public university in Kentucky.

Wherever you go, I encourage you to get started in the fall. Don’t lose momentum. For the last several years, I’ve been spreading the message that higher education matters; COVID-19 has shown us just how much. You may not have the freshman year you imagined, but there may be unforeseen advantages, like smaller classes, more one-on-one support, and fewer distractions. The virus will not last forever, but your college credential will. Your education will equip you with the skills, resources and resiliency to survive whatever uncertainties life may bring.