Across the US higher education enrollment is down, compared to previous years. This trend is not new. Higher education enrollment has decreased in recent years, but like many things it has accelerated due to the pandemic. And the effects of decreased enrollment may be harder felt than previously. However, this doesn’t have to be a doomsday scenario. There are best practices that can help adult learners go against this trend and attain their education goals.
Higher education enrollment declined 2.5 percent last fall. That is almost twice the 1.3 percent rate of decline in 2019, and the 2019 decline was greater that the enrollment decline of 1.7 percent from the previous year. This enrollment decline is across the board, but a large part of it is among adult learners. Adult learners age 25-29 had a 16.5 percent decline in enrollment and adult learners over 30 had a 24 percent decline. This is happening during a very tight employment market caused by the pandemic, at a time when adults need higher education.
Working adults may need to upgrade their skills to maintain their jobs or learn new skills to qualify for new positions. Although employment for many highly-paid workers has stabilized, employment rates are still 21 percent lower for low-paid workers than at the start of 2020. Some of the jobs lost due to the pandemic may never return. With new business practices in place, anywhere from 32 percent to 43 percent of jobs layoffs could become permanent job losses. Workers will need to upgrade skills to increase their employability and employment stability.
The issues of higher education enrollment decline together with changing job requirements do not need to combine into a bleak pandemic recovery. Many adults can return to higher education and be in a position to fill labor-market skill gaps. Over 36 million US adults have some college but no degree. Many of them started school and for one reason or another had to stop out before they could complete a credential. Businesses are in a unique position to be a positive force in increasing higher education enrollment and completion.
Adults who have stopped out of school cite different reason for not completing their education. A study by Lumina Foundation and Gallup reports that cost and emotional stress are the top reasons. Employer tuition assistance programs can help remove both these barriers. Employees who must balance the cost of their education with family responsibilities and living expenses can find the financial investment in education is too great to overcome without help. If employers cover education costs, employees do not have to stop out of education because of family responsibilities such as childcare.
Stress of attending school can be great for employees who have previously stopped out of education. Employer tuition plans that offer counseling for education and career paths can ease that stress. Students can see a connection between their education, career path and personal goals. Counseling can help these employees take the most direct education path to completion. Easing stress that workers feel while working and pursuing higher education benefits employers with more focused and skilled employees.
Tuition assistance plans that support employees seeking short-term credentials can also relieve financial and emotional stress. Many working adults are choosing short-term credentials to learn new skills and increase their chances of employment during the pandemic recovery. Certificates or other stackable credentials will give businesses employees that are quickly increasing their skills to fill immediate skills gaps. These credentials can also stack into degrees that will give employees in-depth knowledge for long-term employment.
Encouraging employees to complete their education and reverse the downward trend of higher education enrollment is something every business can do for their own benefit and to help create a robust post-pandemic economy. Now and in the near future employees will need training to have new skills, and businesses will need highly skilled employees. Using tuition assistance to support employee efforts will change the direction of higher education enrollment and build a strong labor force.
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