After weeks of uncertainty, precaution, stay-at-home orders, and economic turbulence, Americans are beginning to plan for the next stage of their lives. For many, that means making decisions about whether to pursue education and training. In the eighth week of Strada’s Public Viewpoint survey centered around Americans’ attitudes during the pandemic, we gathered insights about Americans’ plans for their education and training, which groups are most likely to enroll, and who Americans are consulting for advice on their education plans.

To discuss the findings, Strada convened a May 20 webinar with researchers from the Strada Center for Consumer Insights, author and journalist Jeff Selingo, Louisville Forward Chief Mary Ellen Wiederwohl, and InsideTrack founder and president Kai Drekmeier. The key takeaways included:

Large numbers of Americans have changed their education plans due to COVID-19

About 1 in 3 Americans ages 18 to 64 have changed their education plans due to COVID-19, with a large proportion cancelling their plans altogether. At the same time, these changes are far more common among the youngest age group in the survey. Nearly two-thirds of 18- to 24- year-olds have changed their plans, “simply because they were more likely to have education plans in the first place,” explained Nichole Torpey-Saboe of the Strada Center for Consumer Insights. Older Americans in the 25- to 44-year-old age group who changed their plans were more likely to have taken drastic action—delaying or cancelling enrollment altogether—but overall, both age groups were just as likely to enroll in some kind of education or training in the next six months.

With so many Americans’ education plans in flux, “we have no idea what the fall is going to look like,” commented Selingo.

But in the event of large declines in enrollment indicated by the survey data, administrators and faculty members need to adapt quickly, Drekmeier said. “Everyone now is on the student support team and everyone now has got to be focused on enrollment management.”

That calls for taking extra steps to make sure students remain engaged, he explained. Online and continuing education leaders within universities who have had to step up in the past few weeks should continue to inform their colleagues’ efforts. Additionally, institutions need to address all student interactions from a place of trauma-informed communication as the effects of the pandemic continue to put pressure on some students to disengage.

Younger and older Americans are just as likely to enroll, but have distinct preferences

While 18- to 24-year-olds and 25- to 44-year-olds are equally likely to enroll in a traditional, four-year college or university in the next six months, the older group is far more likely to seek out education online or through an employer or trade school. This represents a “need to broaden our understanding when we’re speaking about education and training and what that means,” Torpey-Saboe explained. “There are a lot of different ways people are thinking about upskilling and reskilling” that go beyond the traditional four-year paradigm, she added.

Wiederwohl, who saw thousands of Louisville residents quickly enroll in a short-term tech upskilling course in March, agreed that the demand has shifted away from four-year programs, commenting that “the universities that pivot more quickly to what their customers are calling for are going to be the ones that survive.”

While traditional education providers have to be focused on degree and credential offerings that are “less expensive, less residential, and short,” they also have to be asking “how do we design short courses that connect directly to the workforce?” added Selingo.

Americans who already have a postsecondary degree or credential are more likely to enroll in the future

When it comes to who is more likely to enroll by existing education level, Americans who have completed postsecondary education in the past are more likely to pursue it in the next six months. This group “has had education work for them in the past,” so it makes sense that they would see it as a worthwhile investment in their future, said Torpey-Saboe. While this group favored going back to a traditional four-year college or university more than those who have not completed a postsecondary degree in the past, they still showed stronger preferences for online and/or employer-provided education.

Family members are the most valued source of advice on education or training decisions

Overall, Americans ranked their own family members as their most valued source of advice when it comes to planning their next education or training decision, even more so than the education providers themselves. This held true across age groups and education levels, but younger Americans and those without degrees were more likely to look to colleges and universities for advice than their counterparts.

It makes sense that learners would trust the advice they receive from family members, said Wiederwohl, but workforce organizations and policymakers can use the bully pulpit to inform that advice. With so many tuning in to daily COVID-19 updates from local officials, she pointed out that the communication channel between officials and their constituents is more robust than it was pre-pandemic. Workforce leaders can use this as an avenue to let individuals know which options are out there.

For more information and full survey results, visit stradaeducation.org/publicviewpoint.

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