Whether to earn a degree or a short-term credential is a question that many non-traditional learners face. Today, in the face of a pandemic-induced recession, fast-changing skills demands, and the need for continual learning, the answer isn’t to earn one or the other. The answer is that both are important. There are advantages to earning a degree, just as there are advantages for short-term credentials. Adult learners pursuing higher education can find value in each.
Labor-market research shows that there are advantages for workers who earn either a degree or short-term credentials. A degree can offer long-term results, career growth and career stability; a short-term credential offers immediate results for workers upgrading their skills or seeking a new job due to job loss during the current recession, which is critical for many right now. A WorkingNation survey shows that “70 percent of workers surveyed believe it is critical to have a certification in a technology or trade skill, while one in three workers (30 percent) believe it is important to get a two- or four-year degree. Workers and jobseekers believe that getting a certification in an in-demand skill will help them find a job now, especially during the pandemic.”
Education thought leaders are working together to meet the needs of today’s workers and nontraditional learners. The Presidents Forum is a network of college and university presidents and chancellors committed to serving the needs of nontraditional and working learners. Their Learners First Framework outlines 10 principles that the group believes are important to help learners achieve a degree or short-term credential. Several of these principles can also be strong components of employer tuition assistance programs.
One main principle is to focus on learner objectives. For schools, this means aligning their programs with real-world objectives and opportunities for students. The most valuable education experiences will be those that provide students with skills they need for current jobs or to replace a position lost because of the pandemic. For employers, this means supporting employees’ career objectives and offering tuition assistance for programs that teach in-demand skills.
A second principle of the Learners First Framework is to embrace lifelong learning. Employer tuition assistance programs support this idea, recognizing that employees must engage in learning, earning credentials at many levels. Whether earning a degree or short-term credential, employees must continually learn to be productive. Short-term credentials meet the immediate needs of workers, and also can lead to degrees with long-term stability.
Lifelong learning often happens in educational experiences that complement each other. WorkingNation President Jane Oates supports this idea saying, “while there will continue to be many quality jobs that will require a degree, we should adapt the (education) system to allow people to earn those degrees in stages by promoting high quality, industry-recognized credentials that stack to allow people to earn their degree over time while working full-time.” Employers that support employers earning credentials support the value of learning in lifelong incremental stages.
Employer tuition assistance is a vehicle that supports both of these principles, and focuses on learner objectives and lifelong learning. During the pandemic higher education enrollments have decreased. A Strada survey suggests that many people aren’t going to schools because of current economic uncertainty. But this same survey showed that people who are likely to seek training, will look for education that can help them have the skills and knowledge to be successful in their work.
The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reports that people who would enroll in education or training in the next six months have mixed goals about whether they will seek a degree or short-term credential. Forty-seven percent would seek either a bachelor’s degree (11 percent), associate degree (12 percent) or a graduate degree (15 percent). Thirty-nine percent would seek skills training and 24 percent would look for training in a non-degree credential.
Supporting these nontraditional students with flexible education programs and tuition assistance will make it possible for today’s workers to establish their place in the labor market as the pandemic-induced recession ends. Whether nontraditional students seek a degree or a short-term credential is not the important question. Supporting learner objectives and encouraging lifelong education means that workers will be able to re-enter the workforce and move into stable employment while businesses create a strong workforce.
By Kathleen Eischeid, Edcor Business Development Coordinator
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