Higher-ed’s pandemic roadblock stops growth in college degrees

Higher-ed’s pandemic roadblock stops growth in college degrees

Black man at graduation holding his diploma victoriously high in the air.

A new report from the National Student Clearinghouse shows an alarming trend: COVID-19 has slowed the growth of college degree and certificate earners to a standstill. The numbers are the lowest in eight years—and come at the worst possible time, as unemployment soars and millions of Americans are suffering.

The Undergraduate Degree Earners report reveals that the 3.7 million new graduates in the 2019-20 academic year represent no growth—zero—from the previous year. While the number of graduates with prior degrees maintained a slight upward trend, first-time graduates pursuing certificates, associate or bachelor’s degrees decreased by 1 percent or 26,000 students.

Here are the report’s highlights:

  • First-time associate degree earners are now at the lowest level since 2012-2013, when the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center began tracking these data. Associate degree earners dropped 6.7 percent within three months of campuses closing in late spring 2020, and certificate earners fell even more, by nearly 20 percent. These numbers reflect the pandemic’s huge and disproportionate effects on community college students.
  • While first-time bachelor’s degree earners increased over the previous year, this was attributed to traditional-aged students under age 25. The numbers of first-time earner adults (those over 25) are down across all credential types (bachelors, associate and certificates).

This is more than concerning; it’s a national emergency. Not only did the U.S. just report the worst annual economic performance since 1946, but studies show that two-thirds of new jobs require education beyond high school. Adults—who most need to sharpen their skills and learn new ones to compete for jobs—are driving most of these declines. And, given the steep drop in enrollment for adults, especially at community colleges, these trends are likely to continue if we don’t quickly change our practices, tactics, and focus.

The time to act is now. Millions of adults need to skill, upskill or reskill. Semesters are just beginning across the nation and many community colleges offer rolling admissions—especially for certificate programs. There are actionable, immediate steps that we can—and must—take to help people earn degrees and credentials that lead to better jobs and lives. We must:

  • Focus on short-term stackable credentials. Millions of adults need to skill and upskill, but don’t have the time or money for lengthy programs. They need high-quality programs that help them earn quality credentials that are recognized by employers and lead to good jobs along with more learning opportunities. Many good jobs are available to those without a bachelor’s degree.
  • Reach out to the millions of ‘some-college-no-degree students.’  There are over 36 million Americans who began college and did not complete for whatever reason, and this number is growing. We must offer these individuals realistic, affordable pathways to complete their degrees.
  • Offer much-needed holistic support. A recent Lumina-Gallup poll shows 30 percent of students are caregivers and are more likely to be students of color and working. These students are also more likely to consider stopping out of school than their non-caregiving peers. To support them, we must expand services to provide flexible classes, childcare, mentoring, and emergency loans. Support like this is essential for adult learners juggling work and families.
  • Award college credit for learning outside of the classroom, such as on the job or in the military. Prior Learning Assessment boosts adult completion, reduces time and costs—and importantly, helps to close equity gaps.
  • Partner closely with employers across industries to ensure that institutions are preparing students for jobs that are in high demand. Ensure that credentials reflect the labor market skills needed. We at Lumina Foundation now track industry certifications and see progress, but we need more.

Clearly, we know how to fix this. We don’t need to research the answers or pilot boutique programs. We know how to serve and support all students—particularly adults of color—and help them keep learning, earning credentials, and leading fulfilled lives.

At a time when the U.S. needs diverse talent more than ever for our economic and social recovery, we as a country are failing. We are moving in the wrong direction. We must put all of our energy into skilling, upskilling, and reskilling millions more Americans.

And as these alarming numbers show, there is no time to waste.

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