Full-Time Workers Are Pursuing More Education—For Now

March 3, 2021
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Full-Time Workers Are Pursuing More Education—For Now

​The COVID-19 pandemic saw the percentage of employed Americans enrolled in college hit a new low in 2020, continuing a downward trend that began in 2016. While an uptick toward the end of the year saw enrollment bounce back to pre-pandemic levels, it's unlikely to be sustained as education costs continue to rise and employers continue to demand more from workers.

Trend Reversal

Combining data from the IPUMS Current Population Survey and its own survey of over 800 people balancing work and school, EduRef.net found that throughout the second half of 2020, more employed Americans began to enroll in college full or part time with the goal of increasing their earning potential. Nearly 73 percent of those currently enrolled and employed are in their 20s or younger.

There had been a significant dip in enrollment shortly after the pandemic hit in 2020; it went from a peak of 7.1 percent in February to a low of 4.5 percent in June. But in July, it began to tick back up, ultimately reaching a new peak of 7.3 percent in October.

Since 2015, college enrollment for full-time workers has been declining year after year, ultimately hitting a low of 6.4 percent in 2020. While enrollment rose in the second half of the year, that increase may not last.

Melody Kasulis, a project manager who works on behalf of EduRef, isn't convinced that this recent increase is indicative of a larger trend. Given that enrollment of people with jobs had been in decline for years before the pandemic, if companies begin reopening in full throughout 2021, working people might find themselves unable to take classes. "We've seen a gradual decrease since 2015 of people who are able to balance full-time employment with college enrollment," she said. "I'm actually not too confident that we'll see that number rise again."

Kasulis noted that the reasons for the decline over the past five years may vary, but the cost of education is certainly a factor. College tuition has been gradually increasing for decades, and that trend hasn't changed in the past decade. "Just the difference that 10 years makes is considerable," she said.

Additionally, the pandemic and recession have forced companies to do more with less, and employees that have been retained continue to take on a host of new responsibilities without pay increases or promotions. "The demands that people have at work right now are quite unprecedented, especially because of COVID," Kasulis said.

Employer Support

More than three quarters of survey respondents said their employers are at least moderately supportive of their education pursuits. Seventy percent also said that their employers are helping them pay for a portion of the tuition, with respondents pursuing doctorates being the most likely to receive full support.

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) has been a longtime advocate for increasing the amount of education assistance that employers can provide their workers, as well as permanently extending the benefit to include loan repayment. Currently, Section 127 of the Internal Revenue Code caps employer-provided education assistance at $5,250 per employee and temporarily allows for loan repayment through the end of 2025.

Still, a small number of respondents (8.2 percent) said that their employers have not been supportive at all. Some employers may be concerned that earning a degree might prompt employees to look elsewhere—a concern that is understandable, given that 63 percent of respondents are planning to look for a new job once they finish school.

Others view education as a distraction that is dividing up their workers' attentions at a time when productivity is in high demand. Employers' logic in this regard isn't completely unfounded; the majority of students surveyed by EduRef (65 percent) said that they were completing coursework during work hours.

However, while productivity is important, so is having skilled employees who can take on strategic, critical roles. Allowing employees to further their education can benefit the company, depending on what the studies entail. For example, Rose Hernandez, an HR student at Texas A&M University–San Antonio, hopes to transition to an HR role in her company once she graduates this year.

And the benefits for the employee in pursuing a degree in a critical business function like HR, marketing or finance are clear; these fields all have high earning potential. "People are reaching for higher salaries; these are the sort of courses people in our survey gravitated to, especially because they're trying to increase their opportunities to be higher earners," Kasulis said.  

[Join us at the SHRM Workplace Policy Conference 2021 and hear from the experts on workforce development trends and public policies. Learn more and register at https://conferences.shrm.org/workplace-policy]

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