Will Higher Ed Win the Adult Upskilling Game?

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Becky Klein-Collins, Vice President of Impact at CAEL, joined the Enrollment Growth University podcast to discuss whether or not “college” is the most obvious opportunity for adults to upskill today, and whether or not it deserves to be.

The Current Dismal Job Market for Non-college Graduates

The pandemic revealed that people with college degrees tend to hold the most stable jobs — the ones that can shift effortlessly between in-person and remote settings. These people are also the most likely to bounce back quickly from a job loss.

But the recovery is also showing us new data. As restaurants, hotels, and retail are opening up, the picture looks much more scrambled than it does for most office settings.

Last year, three million women left the workforce. Many have not returned. Their absence is not due to lack of education or career achievement. Rather, these women are taking on the bulk of childcare in the absence of schools and daycare options. That kind of phenomenon is what makes this particular recovery so unpredictable. 

But generally speaking, if we think about how our economy is structured and what the growing industries and occupations are, we can see that emerging jobs will require higher levels of skills. 

This trend isn’t new. Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce estimated that 99% of the new jobs coming out of the last recession required at least some kind of college education. Now, obviously it’s not just any college coursework that positions people for good jobs. The real ticket to good jobs is a post-secondary credential that’s valued by business and industry.

Do Adults Still See College as the Go-to Upskill Opportunity?

One survey found that 44% of adults without degrees said they don’t have the right skills or credentials to get a good job or advance in their career. And only about a third said they understood what skills they should be developing. 

Even a decade ago, a college degree provided the most obvious opportunity for workers to advance their careers. Many of today’s working adults aren’t even aware of options besides a college degree might be available to them. 

But we’re in a slightly different place now. Many jobs that pay well and have a good long-term employment outlook don’t require a bachelor’s degree. A credentialing program or alternative training is the ticket to success in these fields.  

Adults wanting to re-skill need to be asking questions about a training or credential program:

  • What occupations is that program training for? 
  • What’s the labor market outlook for that job in my region?
  • What’s the record of this particular program in placing its graduates in those jobs? 
  • What’s this program going to take, in terms of time and money? 

In this pandemic, lower income workers, particularly lower income workers of color, have been hit the hardest. When it comes to upskilling or reskilling, they are going to want options that get them to available jobs quickly and without a high sticker price.

How Can Higher Ed Support a Prospective Adult Audience?

You can’t just offer online or weekend courses and say you’re meeting adult learner needs. To serve adult students well, you need to think about a shift across the entire institution. Consider the following:

  • How can you be a more welcoming place for adult students? Adults need to feel like they belong in college, but these students often have some anxiety about returning to a learning environment. It may have been a while since they’ve been in school. They may have been told at various times in their lives that they aren’t college material. Providing a place that they feel like they belong to is really important.
  • How can you take a more flexible approach? The four-year college degree may not be the best fit for every learner or for every job opportunity. So accelerated and flexible learning models designed for the working learner and offered throughout the year, are key. 
  • How can you make sure your programs are tied to the labor needs of the job market? Adults obviously pursue post-secondary education for many reasons, but most are hoping for a better job on the other end of it. They need to know that what they’re learning is relevant, and it’s going to prepare them for their target occupation.
  • Do you value students’ prior learning? That means having policies that recognize transfer credits from other institutions, yes, but also maybe awarding credit for prior learning.

Next Steps to Meeting the Adult Upskilling Challenge

Institutions have a great resource right at their fingertips — their federal relief dollars —  and they need to be thinking strategically about how to use those dollars. 

One portion must be used for direct emergency cash grants for students. This money is intended not only for academic support, but also for other things that can cause an adult learner to drop out. Women have assumed a lot of adult additional responsibilities during the pandemic. Providing them with these additional resources will be money well spent. 

By the way the US Department of Education has announced that this emergency funding doesn’t need to be limited to students who are receiving Title IV funding. It can go to anyone, even students who didn’t fill out the FAFSA. 

And then there’s the other part of the emergency relief fund, and that’s the part that’s for institutional uses. There are tight restrictions on how this funding can be used. It has to be pandemic-related, but there’s also some language that suggests it can be used to support student retention related to the pandemic. 

Just think creatively about what else might help adult students that are struggling because of the pandemic. What can help them continue their studies right now?


This post is based on a podcast interview with Becky Klein-Collins of CAEL. To hear this episode and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.

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