Usually, postsecondary enrollment increases during tough economies, as workers seek shelter from the lousy job market and invest in upgrading their skills. This can be a (small) silver lining of downturns: If displaced workers choose wisely when it comes to educational and retraining programs, they can emerge from the recession better equipped to boost their earnings. In the long run, a higher-skilled populace increases economic growth, too.
This has been a different kind of recession, of course.
The campuses that would normally enjoy recession-driven enrollment surges are shuttered or are struggling to adapt to remote and blended coursework. Many lower-income and rural students don’t have sufficiently reliable Internet access to take classes online. Some degree or certificate programs have in-person requirements (such as clinical requirements for nursing programs) that have been severely restricted or even halted by social distancing measures.
For all these reasons, workers may cancel or delay the educational choices they’d normally make when faced with a terrible job market.
And lots of fresh data show that college completions and new enrollment have plummeted since the coronavirus pandemic began. That’s particularly true for programs below the level of bachelor’s degrees. The number of first-time associate’s degree earners dropped 6.7 percent in spring 2020 from the year prior, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center; first-time certificate earners fell nearly 20 percent.
Enrollment trends for the current school year look bad, too. Enrollment overall is down 2.5 percent from the previous year. Much steeper declines are clear among first-time postsecondary students (13.1 percent) and especially first-time students over age 24 (down 30.1 percent). These non-traditional-aged students are presumably those most likely to be switching careers.
These trends are especially troubling given the current scale of worker displacement — and how many displaced workers are likely to need new skills or training to find different jobs.
When large swaths of the economy shut down last spring, it initially looked as though most of the affected workers would be recalled swiftly. But the longer the crisis dragged on, the less likely that became. Businesses have failed or retooled their operations; a rising share of jobless workers are now on permanent, rather than temporary, layoff.
Unsurprisingly, a lot of unemployed workers express gloom about their job prospects.
In a Pew Research Center survey released Wednesday, about half of jobless adults said they were pessimistic about their prospects for future employment. Two-thirds said they have seriously considered changing their occupation or field of work. Notably, the share of unemployed people saying they need to change fields to find work is higher today than when Pew asked these same questions a little over a decade ago, in the wake of the Great Recession. This suggests there could be greater need for reallocation and retraining of workers this time around.
Yet the share of unemployed adults who said they had pursued job retraining or educational opportunities is slightly lower today (33 percent) than it was in 2010 (38 percent).
So the gap between those who perceive the need to switch careers and those actually taking steps toward that switch has grown. It’s hard to fault these workers, of course, given the lackluster college experiences available now.
One question is what happens this fall if the job market remains poor. Will more unemployed workers, or recent high school graduates newly entering the job market, decide that “upskilling” looks worthwhile?
The answer depends in part on whether colleges begin offering more attractive and accessible learning experiences. Clues so far suggest that the would-be students who’d financially benefit most from postsecondary education are staying away.
Data from the Common Application — a consortium of about 900 institutions that accept a common admissions application — show that the number of students applying to college is up a touch. But the numbers are down among applicants who qualify for fee waivers (i.e., lower-income applicants) or would be the first generation in their family to attend college.
Similarly, the number of high school seniors completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is down about 10 percent from a year earlier, according to the National College Attainment Network. FAFSA completions have fallen especially sharply at high schools with large concentrations of low-income or minority students.
Perhaps by fall these trends will change — and laid-off workers and new high school graduates will either find work in higher numbers or begin enrolling in the educational programs necessary to improve their job prospects later on. But if they don’t, we’re all in for some trouble. Higher education should be an engine of economic growth and economic mobility. The way trends are heading, it threatens to be neither.