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What is the Impact of COVID-19 on Higher Education?

The impact of COVID-19 and the changing educational landscape of America

April 30, 2020 by Remie Verougstraete

In recent weeks, there has been no shortage of pundits and experts weighing in on COVID-19. But new data from a nationally representative survey gives voice to the perspective of everyday Americans on how the pandemic is affecting their lives, especially in regards to how COVID-19 impacts education and work. 

The Public Viewpoint: COVID-19 Work and Education Survey is produced by Strada Education Network, Emsi’s parent organization. It is updated weekly and currently reflects responses from over 5,000 U.S. adults.

Importantly, the survey includes questions that shed light on not only Americans’ current experience, but also how COVID-19 is affecting their plans for the future and their plans for higher education. These insights are critical for institutions seeking to anticipate and adapt to learners’ needs and preferences for this fall and beyond. 

Below, we’ll highlight some of the most recent findings and then provide a few takeaways and resources to help you move from information to action.


Summary of survey findings

The most recent results shed light on the ways in which COVID-19 is disrupting Americans’ pursuit of higher education. For example, Strada reports that 18% of adults have changed their education plans due to COVID-19 and another 11% have cancelled them altogether. 

However, the survey also highlights that 49% of Americans plan to enroll in some form of higher education within the next five years (down somewhat from 53% in 2019). But perhaps the biggest takeaway is the noticeable shift in where Americans plan to pursue their education.

covid-19 impact graph

Courtesy: Strada Education Network

In the above chart, note especially the rising interest in online-only education and trade schools / programs. These trends seem to mirror the public health and economic dimensions of the COVID-19 pandemic respectively.

Another significant finding is the growing preference for nondegree programs. According to Strada’s survey, the majority of adults (59%) who are considering enrolling in the next six months would choose a certificate-type program or unbundled courses that offer specific skill training.

Pie chart showing that 59% of American's prefer non-degree options

Courtesy: Strada Education Network

Of this same group (open to enrolling in the next six months), a combined 68% cited either upskilling in their current field or reskilling to make a career transition as their motivation.

Pie chart showing that 68% of Americans are motivated by upskilling in their current field or reskilling for a career switch.

Courtesy: Strada Education Network

What does this mean for higher education?

Another factor influencing peoples’ interest in, or need for, higher education is the impact of COVID-19 on the economy and peoples’ work. The survey addresses this part of the equation as well. For example, 35% of adults believe they’d need more education to replace their job if they lost it. And 54% of adults report having already lost work or income because of COVID-19.

Combined with the findings on education preferences, this suggests that institutions should be ready to serve returning or first-time adult learners with education offerings that are online, work-relevant, and skill-driven.


How can your institution respond?

In light of these emerging trends, here are three steps you can take to help your institution prepare:

1.  Monitor emerging trends – One quick and easy way to stay on top of these evolving trends is to bookmark Strada’s Public Viewpoints page and check back for the weekly updates (or scroll to the bottom of that page and sign up for Strada’s newsletter to receive notifications). You may also consider registering for Strada’s upcoming webinar on May 6 exploring the impact of COVID-19 industry-by-industry and check out their COVID-19 Resource Center for other actionable data and insights.  

You can also use Emsi’s free job postings dashboard to track month-to-month or year-over-year changes in posting activities for specific industries, job titles, skills, and more.

2.  Spotlight skills in your curriculum – As this survey data shows, students are increasingly interested in acquiring skills more than degrees. You can adapt by first identifying the work-relevant skills that you are already teaching in your courses and programs. This will enable you to surface these insights to current and prospective students, making it easy for them to see the connection between what’s taught in your courses and the in-demand skills that employers value. You can also look at Emsi’s Labor Market Data resources for institutions.

To see how this kind of skill-based approach to course exploration might work, check out SkillsMatch. With SkillsMatch, individuals can catalog the skills they have, clarify the skills they want or need, and discover open online courses that support their goals. 

SkillsMatch is completely free to use and you can share it now with students, or anyone you know who could use some personalized guidance as they navigate the myriad upskilling opportunities available online. Interested institutions can learn more about providing this kind of skill-based pathway to their own courses as well.

3.  Continue aligning curriculum with evolving needs in the labor market – The impact of COVID-19 and the related shutdowns have caused sudden and massive changes in the national economy. But it’s impacting every region differently. Furthermore, the data shows that some businesses are ramping up job postings while others are slowing down. 

To help you identify the industries and occupations being affected in your region, we’ve developed a free Regional Impact Report. It also includes data on specific “resilient” skills that continue to appear in employer job postings during this time.

For current Analyst users, job posting analytics and other reports can help you track the jobs and skills that employers are looking for on an ongoing basis. Please reach out to your dedicated account manager or contact us if you have any questions or would like help pulling relevant data.

For more on staying informed and adaptive in uncertain times, watch our recent webinar with Emsi’s EVP of Higher Education, Luke Jankovic. You can find additional resources on our COVID-19 Response page. Have a question or comment? Contact us! We’d love to hear from you and help however we can.

Remie Verougstraete

[email protected]

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