The leading voice for excellence in public finance
The leading voice for excellence in public finance

Thought Leadership Thursday

Reflections on Returning to School Amid a Pandemic


Thought Leadership Thursday Article

Reflections on Returning to School Amid a Pandemic
August 20, 2020
State Treasurer and CSPN Chair
Dear Colleagues,

In 2020, uncertainty can feel like the one constant for children, educators, and parents across the country. From the moment my daughter’s school closed in March, the future sometimes seemed to change by the week. With remote learning and social distancing, the past five months have been a daily exercise in learning and adaptation. Now, with COVID-19 continuing to spread, it appears uncertainty will be the defining characteristic of yet another school year.

For millions of families, uncertainty about the school year is just one challenge among many. The pandemic’s economic fallout has led to disproportionate losses in employment and income for Americans with a high school education or less. Workers with a college degree have statistically fared better economically, potentially because many jobs requiring post-secondary education can be done remotely.

We have seen a version of this economic story before. In the Great Recession after the 2008 financial crisis, job losses were largely borne by workers without a college education. High unemployment in the years after the financial crisis led to a surge in students pursuing higher education. Encouragingly, it also led to a sharp increase in graduation rates for the historically most-disadvantaged groups. With increased demand for higher education, the price – tuition – also rose. Colleges were also trying to make up for lost endowment values, philanthropic gifts, and government funding.

Given our experience in the Great Recession, we should expect future demand for higher education to be high. Hopefully, that demand will come from an even more diverse group of students. If the past crisis is any guide, we should expect higher education to become even more important and, likely, even more expensive.

So, our work to help families save for their children’s educational futures is as important as ever. I encourage my colleagues to continue promoting college savings awareness, especially in communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. Despite current uncertainties, educational attainment will almost certainly remain a key predictor of socioeconomic mobility, health outcomes, and life satisfaction. While many Americans would be hard pressed to increase their contributions to a 529 account right now, there is still substantial work to be done educating the public on their savings options. A survey carried out in May by the College Savings Plans Network found that only 35% of Americans said they were aware of the existence of 529 plans, and only 26% could connect 529s to education.

In my own life, I’m trying to navigate these uncertain times by focusing on what I can control—including my own savings for my daughter’s future. The start of her school year may come with much higher uncertainty than previous years, but one thing is certain: she will continue learning. College will remain an important future step for her and millions of others. Through our collective efforts to close the college savings knowledge gap, I hope that more families can save for a future of higher education.


Michael Frerichs
Illinois State Treasurer
College Saivings Plan Network Chair

NAST Thought Leader Thursday banner