Higher Education During the Coronavirus Meets Workers’ Needs

By Adrienne Way, CEO and Owner

As schools open their academic year, it is clear that the start of the fall term and higher education during the coronavirus pandemic will look quite different from school starts of the past. Busy noisy dorms, packed lecture halls and crowds of young adult students moving from one class to another could be only scenes in nostalgic movies. Higher education during the coronavirus pandemic will serve a different audience, be in a different format and be the vehicle to attain a variety of credentials.

Student Population
The adult student population numbers will be an important factor in higher education during the coronavirus pandemic, filling in gaps left by traditional students who may not attend. Each year traditional age students “melt” away during summer, before the fall term starts. “Melt” describes students who are accepted to college and even make an enrollment deposit, but don’t show up for classes in the fall. During this pandemic, uncertainty about classes and record high unemployment, especially for minority students, are contributing to summer melt. The number of high school students who complete the FAFSA is a good indicator of those who intend to enroll. This year, as of June 26, the number of students was down 3.5 percent, about 75,000 fewer students, according to the National College Attainment Network.

Unemployment and changes in the labor market are another reason adult students are a major segment of the student population. And now, the numbers of unemployed adults or working adults who need to upskill may create an even larger portion of the student population. Over a third of workers expect they would need to change fields if they lost their jobs and this generally means they would need advanced training and higher education.  Whether they are working towards completion of a first degree or credential, or seeking post baccalaureate degrees or complementary credentials, about 25 percent of American adults say they plan to enroll in some kind of education or training program in the next six months, according to a Strada Education Network poll.

About 15 million fewer people have jobs now than in February, before the pandemic created an economic crisis. Firms that lay off workers during a crisis often don’t hire them back when business improves, economists say.  Many workers are facing this reality and are seeking higher education during coronavirus to prepare themselves for changes in the labor market.

Credentials for career benefits
Adult students will be seeking a variety of credentials from higher education during the coronavirus pandemic. Scott Pulsipher, president of Edcor-partner school Western Governors University, says that there is a transition happening from a degree-based talent pipeline to a skill-based talent pipeline. A degree no longer prepares people for their entire work career. Instead, he says, lifelong learning is a process that continually intersects with work. “In the future, degrees will continue to hold value, not because of the degree credential, but because a degree is composed of many skills and competencies that are valued by employers. Covid-19 has accelerated dramatically the need for mid-career reskilling and upskilling. It has created sudden demand for education at unprecedented scale.”

The demand for higher education during the coronavirus pandemic is creating demand for education that workers can immediately apply to their work. Of the workers who said they might need to change fields if they lost their job during the pandemic, 62 percent are more interested in pursuing non-degree skills training than a degree. Dave Clayton, senior vice president for consumer insights at Strada says that their studies of prospective students show interest in both formal and information activities. Education experts don’t know the full impact of change that could come about because of the pandemic. However, Clayton says, “What we do know so far, based on this survey and our historic surveys, is that Americans want to see direct career benefits from their education.”

Workers who will be facing new skill demands in their jobs need to learn skills quickly. They need to be able to invest their time and money strategically to have both short- and long-term results. Higher education during the coronavirus pandemic means that many people will be using their education benefits to learn new skills they can immediately apply to their jobs. Businesses that support their employees with education benefits will gain employees with skills that fill the gaps created by new technology and changing market demands. Employers who support short-term credential attainment make it possible for their employees to stack those credentials towards a degree. Immediate results that build long-term education paths create lifelong learning that will be a key to higher education during the coronavirus pandemic and beyond.