Cautious Interest in College Among Working Adults

Working adults increasingly are interested in pursuing postsecondary education, but they are also less confident about the value of college.

September 17, 2020
 
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Working adults enrolled in record numbers this summer at the University of Washington Continuum College, where roughly 51,000 students last year attended continuing education and professional development programs.

Continuum has seen a softening of enrollment numbers so far for the still-young fall term, amid growing national concern about Black, Latino, lower-income and other vulnerable student groups leaving higher education.

Yet the college is fielding more calls these days from prospective adult students, said Rovy Branon, vice provost for Continuum College, who oversees all professional and continuing education programs at UW. And the average call time has gotten longer.

“We’re hearing from a lot of adults with increasingly complex lives,” Branon said, noting that many feel they need to get through the fall before deciding whether to enroll next year. “They want at least one certain thing in their lives.”

Branon’s observations line up with the latest polling data from the Strada Education Network, a nonprofit focused on pathways between education and work.

The nationally representative Public Viewpoint poll conducted by Strada’s Center for Consumer Insights found growing interest in postsecondary education or training among aspiring adult learners (25 to 44 years old, without a college degree but seriously considering enrolling in additional education programs), with 42 percent of respondents saying COVID-19 has made them more likely to enroll, compared to 21 percent who say the pandemic makes them less likely to do so.

However, aspiring adult learners also were less confident in the value of additional education than they were in a corresponding poll Strada conducted one year before this one, which surveyed respondents this month and in August.

Last year, 77 percent of respondents said additional education would be worth the cost, but that share slipped to 59 percent among the 1,007 respondents in the latest poll. Likewise, 89 percent of respondents in last year’s poll said additional education would help them get a job, compared to 64 percent amid the pandemic.

“People are feeling lost,” said Nichole Torpey-Saboe, director of research for Strada’s Center for Consumer Insights. “Everyone is feeling a lot more insecure about their job security and prospects.”

Lindsey Reichlin Cruse, study director at the Institute for Women's Policy Research, said it makes sense working adults’ belief in the value of higher education would be influenced by the pandemic.

“Unemployment is at an all-time high, there are fewer jobs to go around and people’s economic security has decreased dramatically,” she said via email. “Faith in the benefits of higher ed may be relative to those factors, rather than these results reflecting a truly lessened belief that higher ed is valuable; it’s just that the baseline now is so much lower.”

Short-Term and Online

The new polling numbers from Strada reinforce previous findings that show a growing preference for nondegree and skills training options, including short-term online alternatives to the college degree.

Aspiring adult students were more interested in nondegree credentials (68 percent) than they were last year (50 percent), Strada found.

However, that interest may not be leading to enrollment. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found an 11.7 percent decline in enrollments this summer in undergraduate certificate programs compared to last summer.

One reason aspiring adult students may be hesitating to enroll in shorter-term programs is that, relative to their peers, this group faces more barriers to pursuing postsecondary education. Among respondents in this Strada sample, 90 percent would be first-generation students.

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.

Roughly half (47 percent) of respondents said they worry a lot about paying the rent or having enough to eat (46 percent), according to the Strada data. This group also is more likely be struggling with childcare amid disruptions to K-12 schools.

“Feeding one’s family, securing safe housing and supporting children’s well-being will always come first,” said Cruse. “If parents can meet these basic needs and go to school, great. If not, their kids come first and their educational goals often get put on hold.”

Yet the Strada polling data show prospective adult students prioritize finding a good job and career even while they struggle with basic needs -- an example that two things can be true at the same time.

And despite the national dip in summer enrollment in undergraduate certificate programs, interest among working adults at Continuum College is trending toward online and short-term options.

Before the pandemic, enrollment in degree programs at the college was up by roughly 2 percent annually, Branon said, compared to 10 to 12 percent for certificates.

“Uncertainty in the overall moment is driving people to look at things that can be completed in shorter time frames,” he said, noting that overall enrollment at Continuum for the recently begun fall term eventually may be up compared to last year.

Ability to Benefit

Strada found that fewer than one in three adults without college degrees said they have a good understanding of available career pathways, valuable skills and details about potential education programs -- including how long it takes to earn credentials, the cost of tuition and books, and how to access financial aid.

The share of those with enough information is even smaller for respondents who are interested in short-term credentials, said Torpey-Saboe.

Part of the problem is that higher education has rapidly diversified its offerings to working adults over the last decade, Branon said. For example, Continuum now offers 24 credential programs with the word “data” in the title, a major shift.

“All of that contributes to the complexity of the environment and decision making for adult students,” he said.

Colleges also may not be doing enough to help working adults access federal aid they could receive, said Lauren Walizer, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP).

For example, she cited financial aid for college students who do not hold a high school diploma or its equivalent, so-called ability-to-benefit students who comprise a large number of aspiring adult learners.

The ability-to-benefit eligibility was nixed during the Obama administration but restored before his second term ended with a requirement that qualifying programs be connected to career pathways.

Walizer described ability-to-benefit aid as a form of dual enrollment for adult students, and eligibility requires students to be enrolled in both adult education and postsecondary programs. It also features a seven-part definition for programs that are connected to careers, although Walizer said many college programs would qualify and that the U.S. Department of Education has been supportive of expanding access to aid for ability-to-benefit students.

Yet college administrators often don’t think their programs will be eligible, she said, in part because they need to get workforce, financial aid and career and technical education officials on the same page. As a result, she said too few potentially eligible college students without high school credentials have been able to access federal aid.

“It’s such an important opportunity for students to get engaged in college,” Walizer said.

Federal grant aid, such as Pell Grants, can help students avoid some of the risk of going into debt to attend college, a barrier that almost certainly is contributing to growing wariness among working adults about the value equation of enrolling in college.

“They don’t have the extra money to be betting. They might not have the cash up front,” said Torpey-Saboe.

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