Survey: Adults less confident about value of higher ed

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Adults without degrees who want more education say the pandemic has made them more likely to enroll, but they have become less confident over the past year that it will be worth the cost or lead to a job, a new survey shows.

New findings from the Strada Public Viewpoint survey show that adults ages 25 to 44 indicate the pandemic has made them more likely to enroll in education, 42 percent compared to 21 percent who said they were less likely to enroll due to COVID-19. However, those same adults, who don’t have a two- or four-year degree, are less confident about the value of additional education than they were a year ago. Compared to 2019, adults considering enrolling in education are 18 percentage points less likely to believe it will be worth the cost (see graph, below) and 25 percentage points less likely to believe additional education will get them a good job, according to Strada.

The survey also shows that adult learners’ interest this year has shifted more toward non-degree programs. Last year, half of adults who considered enrolling expressed a preference for non-degree pathways, but in 2020 that share has grown to 68 percent, according to the survey.

In addition, adults without degrees also indicated they need more information about education and career pathways. Less than one-third said they understand “very well” about available career pathways, the lengthen of time to complete a program, costs associated with college (tuition, books and other expenses) and available student aid, the survey shows.

A larger percentage (33 percent) of adult learners with no degrees also indicated they see the primary benefit of education as being to pay bills and take care of immediate needs, compared to 2019 (16 percent), according to the Strada survey results.

A lot to juggle

The shift in aspiring adult learners’ view on the benefits of an education was a topic of conversation during a webinar Wednesday on the survey results. It illustrates the challenges many adult learners are facing, the panel said. For example, being good parents and spouses is important to them, which reflects that many are trying to be teachers to their own children whose education may have shifted online for the fall, said Tonjua Williams, president of St. Petersburg College (SPC) in Florida.

Like other community colleges, SPC is studying how to better help students, especially adult learners, during the pandemic and beyond, she said. It’s been widely reported that many two-year college students didn’t initially have laptops or internet connections to attend remote classes, but instructors also have faced challenges by having to retrofit their classes into remote formats while ensuring they remain of high quality and appealing, she said.

It will be critical to develop policies that help both students and instructors with online learning as it will now be a significant part of higher education, Williams said.

“We knew this was coming, but COVID pushed us in this direction even more,” she said.

Embracing adult learners

Becky Klein-Collins, associate vice president for advancement and impact at the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, noted that adult learners already face stresses related to returning to school. COVID only adds to the pressure.

Klein-Collins offered recommendations for colleges to make it easier for adult students. One is to make adults feel like they belong at the college. It can be something as simple as including images of older learners on the institution’s website. It’s also important to create messaging that speaks to them as adults who are taking care of families, she said. That includes avoiding terms such as “college kids.”

Also, colleges can recognize the value of adult learners’ life and work experiences.

“Treat it as asset in their learning,” Klein-Collins said.

For example, instructors can bring attention to that value in classroom discussions, she said. Colleges also can assess their life and work experience and award credit for it that can count toward a credential, she added.

Finally, design programs for them.

“Often it’s their family relationships or their work lives that defines who they are as people. They really can’t and shouldn’t have to drop those identities in order to go to school,” Klein-Collins said.

Uncertainty and cost

Job security and the changing workforce are likely among the factors that are keeping some aspiring adult learners from enrolling, said Yves Salomon-Fernandez, president of Greenfield Community College in Massachusetts. With technology changing the nature of jobs so quickly, plus economic uncertainty brought on by the pandemic, many adults are shifting to certificates, she said.

The cost of higher education is another likely barrier, Salomon-Fernandez said. It’s become too expensive for many people to attend college, coupled with the fact that it typically takes adult learners longer to earn a credential because they are balancing work and family obligations, she said, which is why it’s important to change student aid policies to offer more flexibility.

The panel also discussed the role of employers in paying more for additional training and education, as they know the potential return on investment. Mary Hawkins, president of Bellevue University, said a growth area for her institution is employer-led tuition reimbursement programs. Companies are realizing that offering such opportunities for employees not only helps their workers acquire new skills, but it also contributes to retaining their workforce.

Even employers affected by the pandemic are finding creative ways to work with the university to keep these programs, which Hawkins said tells her that companies see them as worthwhile investments.

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
is editor of Community College Daily and serves as publications director for the American Association of Community Colleges.