Looking Beyond the College Degree

A quarter of Americans say they would pursue education or training within six months if they lost their job, but most prefer nondegree training over the traditional college route.

June 24, 2020
 

As the pandemic wreaks havoc on the job market, a quarter of American adults say they plan to enroll in an education or training program within the next six months, according to the latest results of a national poll conducted by the Strada Education Network. That share was 37 percent for 18- to 24-year-olds and 23 percent for 25- to 64-year-olds.

But the survey also found most of the workers who said they would change fields if they lost their job due to the pandemic (35 percent of all respondents) are more interested in nondegree skills training (62 percent) than pursuing a college degree (38 percent).

Strada’s Center for Consumer Insights has been conducting the nationally representative poll since March 25. It’s designed to track the pandemic’s impacts on Americans' lives, work and needs for education and training.

The poll has found that Black and Latino Americans have absorbed the most economic pain from the pandemic so far, with disproportionate losses of jobs and pay. They also are more likely than white Americans to have had their education plans disrupted, as Strada's poll and other survey data suggest that Black, Latino and low-income Americans may be more likely to leave or avoid enrolling in higher education.

The latest data from the now biweekly survey (it was conducted weekly until late May) uncovered disparities between college degree holders and those without college degrees in their career and education plans.

The two sides of the education divide were about as likely to say they would change fields if they lost their job: 39 percent of respondents who hold a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 33 percent with a high school credential or less. (The survey found that 34 percent of those with some college credits, a certificate or an associate degree planned to change fields if they lost their job.)

However, 55 percent of respondents with at least a four-year degree who are looking to change fields said they have access to the education and training they want, with 15 percent strongly agreeing with that statement. Just 38 percent of those with a high school credential or less education who are looking to change fields agreed with that statement. And 39 percent of respondents in the some-college, certificate or two-year-degree category said they could get desired education and training.

About the Strada Polling Data

Inside Higher Ed and Strada Education Network partner on Public Viewpoint. Strada provides funding to Inside Higher Ed to support its coverage of the polling data and related workforce issues. Inside Higher Ed maintains editorial independence and full discretion over its coverage.

Most respondents (61 percent) who are looking to change fields said more education or training would not be worth the price. Those with at least a bachelor’s degree were most likely to say more education would be worth it (48 percent), compared to 36 percent of other respondents.

And even college degree holders who are looking to change fields were more likely to say they would look outside traditional higher education for nondegree programs or skills training if they were to pursue education or training within the next six months, with 60 percent of respondents with at least a bachelor’s degree and 56 percent with at least some college saying they prefer the nondegree route.

Among those with a high school credential or less, that share rose to nearly three-quarters, with just 29 percent saying they would choose degree programs.

Likewise, workers across education levels who are looking to change fields said that, if they had $5,000 to invest in future education or training, they would prefer online programs (46 percent) or work-based ones (23 percent) to in-person programs (30 percent). And the more postsecondary education under their belts, the more likely respondents were to say they would go the online route.

The societal backlash to the college degree has gone too far, said Brent Orrell, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who focuses on workforce development and criminal justice reform.

"We've done a pretty good job persuading people that a four-year degree is not that helpful," said Orrell, who worked for the U.S. Department of Labor during the George W. Bush administration. "That's a mistake."

A key reason is that workers with a high school credential or less are particularly vulnerable during economic turmoil, he said, citing a wide range of research showing that college degrees give more flexibility and broader skill sets to navigate a changing job market.

Low Interest in Health Care

Survey respondents who work in IT, finance and manufacturing were the mostly likely to say they would change fields, Strada found. More than 40 percent in all three fields said they would look elsewhere if they lost their job because of events related to COVID-19.

In comparison, 29 percent of those who work in business said they would change fields, as would 33 percent in education and 34 percent in health care.

Yet health care is among fields that are least interesting to those looking to make a transition.

Just 8 percent of respondents who would change fields cited health care as one of their top three choices, the survey found -- a share that was tied by the hard-hit leisure/hospitality industry, education and others. Retail (6 percent), personal care (4 percent) and manufacturing (2 percent) were at the bottom of the list.

“Very few people are interested in moving into those fields,” said Andrew R. Hanson, director of research at Strada's Consumer Insights. “Is that going to be a permanent change?”

Health care is at the top of the list for job openings, however, Strada said. The industry had 970,000 positions unfilled as of April, just behind business, which had one million. Retail and manufacturing also were among fields with relatively large numbers of job openings.

Hanson said health-care jobs tend to come with credential and licensing requirements that can be barriers for lower-income people. And he speculated that fear and unease about the industry during a pandemic could also be at play.

“That’s got to be one of the drivers,” he said. “It looks pretty risky.”

Many in health care also have been laid off in recent months as hospitals have hemorrhaged money with elective procedures largely on hold, said Orrell, which could be contributing to wariness about the field.

"We're going to need a lot more health-care workers," he said, noting that the jobs tend to be good ones that pay well.

More than half of the survey’s respondents looking to change fields (52 percent) said improving their finances or advancing their careers were the most important reasons for making a jump. And 34 percent said earning more money was their primary motivation.

But beyond that, respondents cited a wide range of reasons for wanting to change career fields, including a desire to do work that is a better fit for their talents (30 percent), that gives them more control over their work lives (18 percent) and provides more opportunities to advance (9 percent) and a more stable paycheck (8 percent).

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