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Recessions are normally good times for colleges that enroll adult students. A new report from Eduventures explores the reasons that may not be the case with the recession that was brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.

"While we conclude that economically distressed adults will need education and training, just as they always have, the question is whether this downturn will favor colleges and universities or prove a breakthrough for other providers," the report says. "The currency of degrees, long and expensive, and often not directly tied to employment, will be tested as never before. Alternative credentials, typically short, relatively inexpensive and more closely aligned with the ultimate 'good job' goal of most adult learners, may look particularly attractive. Some nontraditional providers are pressing to be admitted to federal student aid, which would break a distinct advantage enjoyed by college and universities."

The report cites early evidence that adult students may not be going to higher education in this recession as they have in the past.

Applications for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid by independent students, typically age 24 or older, were down by 9 percent for the first three months of 2020. And Strada Education says interest in education or training is flat compared to a year ago.

"This may reflect the uncertainty generated by COVID-19. Widespread job losses and insecurity, a lack of clarity concerning government aid, and not knowing when the virus may subside and the economy will rebound, is hardly a climate conducive to quick decisions about future education," the report says. "Many parents are busy with children home from school, and many may have sick loved ones or may themselves be ill. Just as many high school seniors are hedging their bets, hoping that campuses can reopen in the fall, many adults may hesitate over today’s online-or-nothing higher education menu."

There is also the problem (and opportunity) of adult students who have started a college education but never finished one.

"Higher education also creates its own adult learner pipeline. While inching up in recent years, about 40 percent of bachelor’s-seeking undergraduates do not complete their degree in six years. The sizable 'some college, no degree' population, over 32 million people, is in the sights of adult recruiters," the report says. "Less well-known is that the attrition rate for adult learners is often worse still, particularly for part-time students. For-profits may have outperformed in the past two recessions, but many of these schools relied on ill-prepared and under-informed prospective students who ended up dropping out, often in significant debt. Enrollment growth is not always a good thing."

A key issue for colleges is that "the non-degree hand is stronger this time around," the report says. "During the Great Recession there were no MOOCs, no coding bootcamps, and no microcredentials. Non-college forms of postsecondary education existed but not anything like today’s variety and quality. The recent Strada survey found that respondents interested in education and training in the next six months were more likely to anticipate non-degree enrollment (59 percent) than degree, particularly among adult learners."

With colleges facing a loss of traditional-age students, these factors make it dangerous to assume adult students will enroll, the report says. But colleges that think about this market may well gain enrollments.

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