The pandemic has led to a national crisis of widespread disruption to both work and education for millions of adults in the U.S., especially those from historically marginalized groups. Will these disrupted workers and learners pursue education and training in the coming months?
Rates of enrollment and interest in education and training are down substantially compared to a year ago, while preferences for work-based and nontraditional learning options endure. In the months ahead, we must find novel and innovative ways to help these learners return to the education and training pathways to upward mobility and career advancement.
When the COVID-19 crisis struck in March 2020, businesses across the country were shut down, and tens of millions of Americans found themselves on the unemployment rolls—more than at any time since the Great Depression. Over the past year, half of adults in the U.S. experienced a work change, such as losing a job, starting a new job, or having to work more or fewer hours. Women, Latinos, Black Americans, Millennials, and those working in leisure and hospitality jobs have suffered disproportionately.
*Percentages do not sum to 100 percent as respondents could identify multiple changes.
Recessions tend to accelerate changes in both the structure and skill demands of the labor market, which is why helping U.S. adults skill and transition into fields where opportunities abound is a central aspect of recovery. The challenge, however, is that the pandemic has simultaneously disrupted employment and education for millions of Americans across generations.
Last fall, college enrollment plummeted, especially for community colleges and first-time enrollment of high school graduates from high-poverty high schools, where and Black and Latino students are overrepresented. Many students who were in hands-on programs could not safely return, delaying their enrollment, and many transferred to online learning.
To date, 37 percent of adults have had to change or cancel their education plans as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. Forty-one percent of these adults canceled their plans altogether, while 37 percent decided to delay enrolling. Others reduced the amount of training they were pursuing, switched to an online modality, or changed providers.
Among learners — i.e., adults who reported they had an education plan — education disruption was especially acute for young adults, 65 percent of whom changed or canceled their plans. Latino and Asian American learners were the most likely to have had their education disrupted by the pandemic, while white learners were the least likely.
The most common reasons cited for having to change or cancel education plans were the financial costs and needing to work, pre-existing challenges that were exacerbated by the pandemic. One in three learners, respectively, cited financial costs and needing to work as their reasoning for changing or canceling their plans, while 1 in 4 said they changed or canceled their plans because they could not or did not want to attend an in-person setting. Substantial shares of disrupted learners cited caring for a family member and health concerns among their challenges.
Americans whose work was disrupted by the pandemic are looking to reskill or upskill in great numbers.
To what extent are Americans whose work changed as a result of the pandemic seeking to reskill? Thirty-two percent say they are likely to enroll in some kind of education or training program within the next six months, more than three times as likely as Americans who said their work was not affected by the pandemic.
What has happened to Americans whose education plans have been disrupted by the pandemic? Over the course of the past year, there has been a more than 10 percentage-point decrease in planned or current enrollment. Today, 33 percent report they are enrolled in an education or training program, and 35 percent plan to enroll in the next six months. Both enrollment and plans to enroll, however, have declined substantially compared to spring 2020. At that time, 41 percent of these disrupted learners were enrolled in education and training, and roughly half were planning to enroll in the next six months. The decline represents a national crisis of learners who appear to have given up their pursuit of learning — a crisis that has severe implications for their ability to get back on pathways to upward mobility and career advancement.
Black Americans and Latinos who changed or canceled their education say they are more likely to pursue education compared to white Americans. More than half of disrupted learners of color are either currently enrolled or intend to enroll in an education or training program in the next six months, compared to only 39 percent of white Americans.
Similarly, young adults whose education was disrupted are substantially more likely to pursue education than working-age adults. Nearly all young adults whose education was disrupted are either currently enrolled in an education program or plan to enroll in the next six months. By comparison, only 2 percent of working-age adults whose education was disrupted are currently enrolled, while 34 percent plan to enroll in the next six months. Working-age learners face greater barriers to education and training than their younger peers, especially in the pandemic.
Where do these disrupted learners plan to enroll? There is far more interest in work-based and nontraditional training options than in colleges and universities, as we have consistently observed over the course of the pandemic. Of disrupted learners who plan to enroll in an education program in the next six months, 26 percent said they planned to enroll in employer-based learning options, and 25 percent said they planned to enroll in online nonacademic courses, training, or certifications. By comparison, 17 percent of those learners said they planned to enroll in a community college, and 16 percent said they planned to enroll in a four-year college or university.
The pandemic has had an unprecedented and profound impact on workers and learners in our nation. While recessions generally tend to have a countercyclical effect on enrollment in education and training programs, especially at community colleges, this time has been different. The combination of financial shocks, competing family and caring responsibilities, and barriers to in-person learning associated with the pandemic have inhibited disrupted workers and learners, especially working-age adults, from pursuing the education and training opportunities they would have pursued under normal circumstances.
At the same time, disrupted learners’ interest in returning to education has diminished over the course of the pandemic and represents a growing crisis of access. These workers and learners are seeking diverse learning options, especially work-based and nontraditional learning options, as the economy recovers and in-person gatherings once again become safe. Now is the time to focus on the “first-mile” challenge of helping workers and learners understand and navigate the vast array of education and training options in order to get on a pathway that facilitates the acquisition of the knowledge and skills required to achieve their life and career goals.
Results for the Strada Public Viewpoint are based on three web surveys conducted from February to April with adults ages 18 and older who live in all 50 states and Washington, D.C. For the national survey, there were 3,006 responses.
The data are nationally representative in terms of age, education, gender, race, ethnicity, and region. Retirees are excluded from this analysis which yields a sample of 2,106.
A theoretical margin of error based on a probability sample of size 1,500 would be +/- 2.5 percent at 95 percent confidence. This is not a probability-based sample, and a margin of error cannot be estimated. Based on experience, we believe the sampling error would be at least this number.
In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.
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