COVID-19 creates a need for higher education

The need for higher education has become more apparent than ever during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many people who have lost their jobs do not have the skills and credentials they need to move forward in a new position. Jobs that require workers to have face-to-face contact are disappearing and the jobs replacing those require advanced skills and knowledge. Current higher education enrollment trends and student dropout rates mean that for many displaced workers it will be difficult to move into new work. To improve this situation both individuals and the companies they work for must face the need for higher education.

Enrollment reports this fall show that undergraduate enrollment is continuing to decrease. In late September, undergraduate enrollment was down 4 percent, and in October it was down 4.4 percent. Enrollments for adults 30 and over decreased at almost twice the rate of traditional age students. The steadily decreasing numbers of undergraduate students means that individuals just beginning their education and preparing to enter the workforce are not preparing themselves for the world or work. It means that workers who have dropped out of school are not returning to complete their education and acquire the skills they need to improve their career.

People who do not have credentials or degrees are discovering the need for higher education during this economic crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic. People with bachelor’s degrees have had the lowest unemployment rate compared to those with some college or a high school diploma. One of the reasons for this is that people with higher education have jobs and skills that offer them a greater chance to work remotely.  They also have skills that can help them move into new jobs. The need for higher education is also evident in the broader economy. “Education has a direct effect on equity,” states Educationdata.org. “College dropouts or those with no education tend to stay in low-income brackets, place more of a demand on government and social services, and struggle in the labor market to advance.”

Employers are in a strategic position to meet their employees’ needs for higher education and to create the broader benefits for society as well. Currently the US ranks 19th in graduation rates among 28 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries (OECD).  Creating a culture of learning and supporting workers as they enroll in higher education is a first step toward creating a stronger workforce and highly competitive US businesses. A large number of workers are in a position to help make this happen: 34 million Americans, age 25 and older, have some college credit.  And many of these people don’t believe they have the power to get a good job or advance in their career.

Companies that offer tuition assistance can change employee’s feelings that they don’t have power to affect their lives. These companies can turn the need for higher education into career pathways for employees. Meeting employees’ need for higher education equips people with skills and knowledge that can carry them through the current economic recovery and beyond. This isn’t a one-time happening, however. Jamie Merisotis, president and CEO of Lumina Foundation, addresses the idea that the need for higher education is here to stay. “To prepare people for human work, we need to change many of our assumptions about education, training, and employment,” he says. “To begin with, the notion that education is finite, or that learning and work are strictly sequential—that one goes to college or technical school first, and then goes to work, staying current through experience and occasional training on the job—that idea has long been obsolete.”

This means, for individual workers and the companies that employ them, that the need for higher education is a constant. And the more the economy changes, the more skill demands change, and the more technology becomes part of our live, the greater the need for higher education will be. This means that “student” and “worker” are not two different kinds of people, says Merisotis. “In today’s economy, and even more in tomorrow’s, learning and working occur simultaneously, and both are necessary throughout life.” 

By Adrienne Way, Edcor owner and CEO