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Americans’ Shaken Confidence and Shifting Preferences Dominate Higher Ed Heading into 2021

There is so much uncertainty in higher ed as we anticipate the end of the pandemic, but some of the key lessons learned should guide us through it, including putting students first, implementing digital and hybrid education, and making education accessible to all. 

About 18.3 million Americans are unemployed, and the six in ten who still have jobs are worried about losing them. Many believe they would need additional education to get comparable work, with well over a third of adults who have had their work disrupted by COVID-19 saying it has made them more likely to enroll in higher education. And yet, college enrollments have dropped substantially—and even more dramatically at community colleges, which are typically the first to welcome returning adults.

Over the last year, the Strada Center for Education Consumer Insights has surveyed over 25,000 Americans about what they truly want from education, what gives them confidence, and what holds them back. The insights those Americans shared can serve as a powerful guide to colleges, policymakers, and community organizations to help individuals translate the promise of education into their personal plans.

First and foremost, Americans are experiencing twin crises of confidence when it comes to education; they’re both questioning the value of higher education and their own ability to succeed. Among aspiring adult learners—those aged 25 to 44 without postsecondary credentials who are considering enrolling in education—only 24% strongly agree that it would help them get a good job. And just 18% say the same about it being worth the cost. Both percentages have dropped dramatically from just a year before. At the same time, self-doubt is a major barrier to pursuing additional education, with 49% of all adults fearing they won’t be able to succeed, or that they’ve been out of school too long, or both.

These views raise important questions about whether enrollment will rebound in 2021 and beyond. Particularly alarming are the declines in enrollment among Black and Latino students, while their communities are suffering disproportionately with regard to both health and employment. 

Second—and related to concerns about value—we’ve seen important shifts in views around the connection between education and career. Disrupted workers, current students and aspiring adult learners are all more concerned about whether higher education will make them attractive job candidates. Fewer than one in three aspiring adult learners are confident they understand which skills are the most valuable to develop or which career paths fit their strengths. And one in five current undergraduate students says COVID-19 has made their opportunities for career exploration much worse. 

Institutions understandably face a lot of challenges right now in creating opportunities for career exploration and development, but the data show that when students feel supported in connecting their education to a career, they are much more likely to believe their education will be worth the cost.

Third, we have seen a marked increase in interest in nondegree programs. Among aspiring adult learners, 68% now prefer nondegree programs, up from 50% a year before. Despite this interest, and in part because of the wide range of programs, we know much less about the financial ROI of short-term credentials. The results of a recent federal experiment in this area were mixed when it came to workforce outcomes. 

So, as 2021 gets underway, there’s a question of whether individuals can build the skills and obtain the career outcomes they seek through these programs. Laying out clear pathways between short-term programs, employment and longer-term credentials will be a key component of delivering value.

Fourth, we’ve seen complex perspectives around the shift to online education, but there’s every reason to believe that both fully online and hybrid options have staying power. About 29% of current students say their immediate experiences with online instruction has made their ability to learn much worse, understandably given the precipitous switch to fully remote learning in the spring. Despite these concerns, Americans overall, including aspiring adults seriously considering education, show a strong preference for online and hybrid programs because of the perceived convenience, self-pacing, and lower cost. Three in ten Americans say they would prefer an online option even if COVID-19 weren’t a consideration, so online and hybrid programs are likely to have wide appeal well after the pandemic ceases to make them essential.

If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that higher education can change much quicker than we thought. Nimbleness and openness will be essential as we head into 2021. Many answers remain unknown, but Americans are loudly and clearly asking the questions they most need answered by education providers, policymakers, and funders: how can we get people interested in education to actually enroll? How can we ensure that the knowledge and skills that programs convey translate into jobs? How can we improve confidence in the value of education—and Americans’ confidence in themselves?

The work may be difficult, but the need is clear. Americans have told us so.

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