More than a third of adults who were pursuing postsecondary education before the COVID-19 pandemic have decided to cancel or shelve those plans, according to a new report released by Strada Education Network.
Strada’s Public Viewpoint survey done between February and April of more than 2,100 adults 18 and older showed that 15% have completely abandoned those goals while another 22% have at least temporarily put off enrolling at higher education institutions. That has led to what Strada has called “a national crisis of learners” that includes a more than 10% drop in enrollment since last March.
“We were surprised that the interest in education training dropped so much,” Andrew Hanson, Director of Research at Strada told University Business. “You think about the recession and the economy. With jobs going away, you would think that the interest would be persistent, but it seems as though a lot of them have given up their pursuit of education.”
Decisions by jaded learners cut across all subgroups, but most especially young adults (65%) and students of color – Latinx (61%) and Asian Americans (58%) – who have been deeply affected by the pandemic. Financial hardships (34%), an increase in having to work full- and part-time jobs (28%), or both, have presented barriers for prospective students. Some adults say a lack of face-to-face instruction has been an obstacle, while others indicated they still don’t feel safe in in-person environments (24%).
When the pandemic hit last March and job losses occurred, it seemed a natural that individuals would try to upskill or reskill and turn to higher education. But that hasn’t happened for a variety of reasons, and there is concern some of the effects may linger.
“When we reported last year on the initial disruption, it was at a time when many folks were predicting how this was going to be good for business. This recession was going to lead to a spike in enrollment,” Hanson said. “But the magnitude of the disruption was so big. By the time we got to the fall, the enrollment numbers didn’t look good and still don’t look good. Now, the question is, what’s going to happen this fall? We’re looking at some of this data, and overall interest is pretty high. But among the folks who left, a lot of them aren’t interested in coming back.”
Workplace changes and the massive switch in learning modalities at most institutions have had a significant impact. According to the survey, half of respondents said their employment is different – either working less (30%), working more (24%), starting new positions (21%) or losing their jobs (20%). Safety and other needs during the pandemic also has been a factor, with large numbers of those surveyed saying “caring for a family member and health concerns” led to their decisions to postpone or cancel their academic pursuits.
While some of those eventually may subside – such as safety and even job losses – some likely will not.
“There’s lots of other stuff going on in terms of financial hardship and caregiving needs that haven’t changed,” Hanson said. “So that’s probably a big reason why people haven’t gone back.”
Changing the dynamic
One group that recognizes the need to gain new skills to stay competitive in the marketplace is young adults. Though they were hurt the most during the pandemic in the pursuit of education and training, 93% said they want back in during the next six months.
Two groups that aren’t ready to come back, now or maybe at all, are the pandemic-affected group of older adults and White learners. The latter might be surprising, but Strada said the pattern has been there for a while. Some 13% said they weren’t sure if higher education “would be worth it”.
“White disrupted learners were far less likely to want to return to education than the than the folks of color,” Hanson said. “For the past few years, White Americans have become more and more skeptical of the value proposition of higher education and whether it’s a means to success. That’s problematic. They can get away with that in many cases because a lot of them can get opportunities that people of color wouldn’t have access to.”
One of the great divides that exists and unearthed in Strada surveys throughout the past year is the disparity in the numbers of jobs and workers to fill them – largely because skills, positions and desired fields don’t match up.
“There’s a big mismatch between where these displaced workers want to go and where the jobs actually are,” Hanson said. “There are a lot of fields like healthcare and manufacturing and retail, where there are a ton of job openings, but the people aren’t necessarily interested in going into the field. There’s an opportunity to kind of accelerate and get information in the people’s hands about where the opportunities are, and then connect them to education pathways that help them build the skills to get to them.”
What are education seekers looking for from higher education?
Strada’s survey notes they want more non-traditional education and training options. About a quarter of those are considering employer-based learning, while another 25% are looking at online non-college learning. Around 20% are thinking about online-only education.
How colleges can help
Colleges should remain flexible for all student learners, providing as many accessible options as they can. They should also be tailoring curriculums or training to help students develop skills so they can be workforce ready in jobs of the future.
“We need to find solutions that provide individuals with great confidence that additional education and training will improve their lives and provide them with equitable opportunities to obtain the benefits,” said Dr. Dave Clayton, Senior Vice President of Strada’s Center for Education Consumer Insights.
Colleges and universities can help bridge gaps to those learners by reaching out to them in a couple of ways.
“Marketing to these learners is No. 1,” Hanson said. “Institutions that do that well, they’ve figured out how to enroll and tailor their marketing campaigns to help [students] get ahead. You have to make people aware, or at least bring the opportunities front of mind, especially if you’ve got a program that’s going to lead them to a job field where there are robust openings.
“The second piece is, there are emerging technologies to help identify individuals, talents, interests, aptitudes, and so on, that connect them to career opportunities they otherwise aren’t aware of. There’s not really a gold standard on that. But there are a lot of institutions that aren’t leveraging those. You think about predictive analytics. A lot of times those get dismissed because of the potential inequities involved in the algorithms, which are certainly a concern. But sometimes it leads institutions to say no to them altogether, when they could actually help solve these kind of problems.”
For colleges that can bring back students who dropped off the radar, there is a lot to gain.
“Especially if they’re public institutions,” he said. “If they have as part of their mission serving the community or the state, to help these disrupted workers and learners back on their feet and back to work and advance their careers, they can win a lot of goodwill.”