Displaced Workers Haven’t Turned to College for a Fresh Start. Here’s What Might Bring Them Back.

About a third of Americans believe they would need more education or training if they lost their job during the pandemic, according to recent data from the Strada Education Network’s Center for Education Consumer Insights.

But with the economy still in a pandemic-induced recession, displaced workers haven’t turned to colleges to retool their skills. Some higher-education observers wonder if that disconnect will end this year.

“Does that belief start to translate into enrollment and pursuit of education and training?” Dave Clayton, a senior vice president at Strada, asked during a recent webinar about the surveys the nonprofit group has conducted of adults, their work, and their education plans during the pandemic. “That’s really a key theme we’ll be watching in 2021.”

Among the reasons people aren’t enrolling, particularly at community colleges, is that they’re too busy navigating economic uncertainty to make college a priority. But Strada’s data suggest that when workers eventually do set out to learn new skills, they’re most likely to enroll in a nondegree program or seek skills training.

Such programs were a popular option before the pandemic. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics show that in 2016 roughly one out of four adults had a nondegree credential — a postsecondary certificate, a certification, or a license. At community colleges, for instance, postsecondary-certificate programs exist for such fields as medical coding, court reporting, dental assistant, computer-support specialist, and welding.

When laid-off workers begin seeking ways to quickly get the knowledge they need to re-enter the work force, the growth in nondegree credentials issued by colleges could resume. Sub-baccalaureate certificates, for instance, were on the rise before the pandemic. And data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center this past fall show that, as of late October, postbaccalaureate certificates grew by 5 percent from a year earlier — one of the few bright spots in enrollment trends by credential.

Here’s a look at how adult learners value postsecondary certificates, the hottest jobs that postsecondary certificates can lead to, how adult learners who want a nondegree credential prefer to earn it, and more.

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