There’s a widely held assumption that Americans struggling with economic hardship as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic are likely to turn to a community college for retraining. That theory seems to have support in a survey released Wednesday by the Strada Education Network.
Since May, one in five Americans age 18 and older have said they plan to enroll in an education program in the next six months, according to the survey results.
Among those who plan to enroll in some type of education, 37 percent said they prefer skills training or personal development courses. Twenty-five percent prefer a nondegree credential, such as a certificate or license.
Just 12 percent said they plan to pursue an associate degree, however, compared to 16 percent who prefer a bachelor’s degree and 10 percent who plan to earn a graduate degree.
Relevance is important
When asked why they prefer a particular educational option, the largest number of survey respondents, 38 percent, said their choice was driven by relevance. They were most interested in an education program that is required in their field of work or better fits their personal needs.
The second most important reason, selected by 28 percent of respondents, is the need for a streamlined educational option – that is, faster, less expensive and more convenient.
Twenty-four percent cited value, and 10 percent chose stackability as their most important reason for selecting a particular option.
Americans who prefer nondegree or skills training, however, placed a higher emphasis on value.
Online learning preferred
Since the onset of the pandemic, Americans have expressed a consistent preference for online learning, the Strada survey found.
Forty-two percent prefer online-only instruction, 32 percent prefer a hybrid approach and 26 percent favor in-person learning.
The most-cited factor in preferring a particular learning mode is safety, which was cited by 35 percent of respondents. Twenty-four percent said comfort and support were most important, 19 percent cited convenience, 13 percent said learning effectiveness and 9 percent cited affordability.
Among those who said they prefer online-only programs, their top reason is safety, followed by convenience and affordability.
By contrast, Americans who prefer in-person education are more likely to say they prefer it because they learn more effectively in a classroom.
Americans with less education place greater value on educational experiences that make them feel comfortable and supported. Low-income Americans are more likely to value convenience.
The survey results highlight the need for learning options designed specifically for working adults who want to learn new skills, especially among those whose learning was disrupted by pandemic, says Andrew Hanson, director of research at the Strada Education Network.
Speaking at an online panel discussion on the survey findings, Hanson predicted the pandemic will lead to an acceleration of “unbound learning modes.”
People are looking for personalized, streamlined and career-oriented educational opportunities, he said.
“It’s absolutely essential to understand education consumers so we can design learning experiences that meet them where they are and where they want to go,” he said.
The Colorado Community College System is seeing an increase in students who are sitting out a year from their planned enrollment at a four-year institution or are looking for rapid upskilling, said Michael Macklin, associate vice chancellor for workforce partnerships/development.
Even before the pandemic, Colorado colleges were responding to the increased demand for short-term, non-credit workforce programs, Macklin said. He cited an accelerated, one-year apprenticeship program at Arapahoe Community College in partnership with Centura Health leading to a stackable credential in medical assisting.
Another accelerated program, launched by the Community College of Aurora, allows students to earn 22 credits and a recognized credential in information technology in just 16 weeks.
The pandemic has highlighted the need to quickly ramp up programs leading to jobs in high-demand fields. Van Ton-Quinlivan, CEO of Futuro Health, described how her organization formed a partnership with Kaiser Permanente and Service Employees International Union to address a shortage of allied healthcare workers.
It’s all about jobs
“The single most important change in postsecondary education over the past 25 years is the rise of the employment imperative,” said Ryan Craig, managing director of Achieve Partners.
About 92 percent of students in higher education say their main objective is getting a good job, up from about 60 percent a few years ago, Craig said.
“The increased demand for alternative pathways to good jobs is dramatically accelerated by COVID,” he noted.
To meet that demand, businesses need to step up, Macklin said. He called on them to play a larger role in financing noncredit programs and “invest in the learners they will eventually hire.”
According to Macklin, the role of community colleges is to put students onto a path to further education or a successful career. Students aren’t thinking six or seven steps down the road, so colleges need to have policies and procedures in place to facilitate that progression, including ensuring they get credit for prior learning.
He called for employers to hire people based on their skills, rather than their credentials.