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When the COVID-19 pandemic upended our economy, sending millions of Americans to the unemployment lines, it was natural to anticipate an influx of displaced workers as newly enrolled students. That is the historical pattern: when economic downturns threaten the stability of workers’ lives, they turn to higher education’s promise of advancing careers and increasing wages.

Except this time there’s a paradox roiling under the surface of enrollment trends.

These countercurrents in decision making are most clearly seen among adults without college degrees considering additional education. They simultaneously report increased interest -- up 21 points due to COVID-19 -- and decreased confidence that education or training will be valuable. In the past year, that confidence has fallen precipitously. The percentage of aspiring adults who strongly believe additional education will be worth the cost has dropped from 37 percent to 18 percent. It’s even worse for expectations that additional education will help them get a good job, down from 56 percent a year ago to 24 percent today.

Americans feel a greater need for education’s promised upward mobility, but their faith in this promise is shaken.

The pandemic’s crucible revealed this paradox, created over time as education consumer sentiments have shifted with the forces of globalization, technological advancement and the labor market. It presents both a challenge and an opportunity for institutions to learn, adapt and deliver on the value of higher education. Success will come through greater alignment between learners’ needs and aspirations and the education and training institutions provide.

It’s important to recognize that Americans are not questioning average lifetime earnings premiums from education, or its intrinsic value. Two-thirds of the public agree that getting more education will be essential to having a good job in a time of economic uncertainty. But they are wondering about their personal decisions to pursue more education or training.

It’s analogous to the tension between population health and personalized medicine. The statistical averages say you don’t need the referral to the specialist, but something isn’t right, and you feel compelled to know why and what to do. It’s personal.

Education consumers -- past, present and prospective students -- have identified the touchstone that changes their personal value equation: relevance.

Our nationally representative Strada-Gallup survey of more than 350,000 Americans shows that, more than considerations like income, school ranking or cost of attendance, individual beliefs about the value of education are most closely tied to its relevance in their work and daily lives. Relevance ratings are highly correlated with an individual’s belief that their education and training were worth the cost, were high quality and were helpful in finding a job. The same database also shows that pathways, majors and fields of study more closely associated with career preparation receive higher value ratings. Engineering, education and health care, for example, fare better than business and the liberal arts if graduates do not pursue postgraduate degrees.

The pandemic’s pressure on education’s value equation is revealed in two related surveys of learners, completed in September 2019 and 2020. Last year, more than three-quarters of aspiring adult learners without degrees believed postsecondary education or training would be worth the cost; nearly nine in 10 believed it would lead to a good job. Just one year later, the belief it would be worth the cost has dropped 18 points (to 59 percent). The belief that it will lead them to a good job is down 25 points (to 64 percent).

The lack of clear relevance -- that in a faltering job market, the cost and sacrifice will pay off with meaningful career outcomes -- appears to be deflating aspiring adult learners’ confidence that postsecondary education, or at least certain pathways, hold the answer to their hardships.

This need for relevance also shapes the nature of the increased interest in education and training. Immediate financial pressure and uncertainty about the shape of an economic recovery has led to a preference for short-term, nondegree (25 percent) or skills-training (37 percent) programs, outpacing bachelor’s degree programs (16 percent) by a significant margin.

Looking through the lens of relevance, the interest in these programs is understandable. They have a clearly defined focus with specific skills-development goals, and a line of sight to specific employment opportunities. Alums of these programs are more likely to say their education was relevant to their career goals -- and more valuable.

This doesn’t mean that the answer is simply to offer more -- or point more people to -- nondegree programs. To do so would be shortsighted and undermine the potential for gains during periods of recovery, when college-educated workers typically capture the lion’s share of economic gains. But it does suggest that colleges and universities have an opportunity to integrate immediate skills and credentials that carry labor market value into degree pathways. Individuals who have succeeded in nondegree programs and had a positive educational experience are more likely to seek more of it in the future. Colleges and universities can meet that interest by connecting with other nondegree providers, or by providing both offerings through their own curriculum. In this way, colleges and universities have the opportunity to be gateways to lifelong learning rather than gatekeepers.

These are especially important considerations for supporting the millions of American adults without a postsecondary degree. And it comes at a time when these individuals -- who disproportionately come from low-income households and communities of color long underserved by the current system -- need it most.

Adult learners’ confidence in higher education’s promise has eroded over time and collapsed with the pandemic, but data show the formula to rebuild it is not complicated. It starts with including their voices in how we define the value of postsecondary education. When programs demonstrate a clear path to learners’ career goals and are responsive to the real and perceived barriers that prevent learners from pursuing them, education programs deliver rational, practical and achievable purpose.

And learners can more clearly understand what they’ve gained from that journey -- and value it.

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