At this point in the pandemic, we’ll take any glimmer of hope we can. Three cheers for U.S. unemployment claims falling below 700,000 this past month for the first time since Covid-19 hit. But the number is still staggering. As someone who has worked in higher education for the past 22 years, I can’t stop thinking about those who have experienced the largest increases in unemployment: adult workers with low educational attainment. For them, completing a degree online is the best option to redirect their life and lessen their chance of being laid off down the road. Compelling Bureau of Labor Statistics data also show that earning your college degree will increase your lifetime earnings by as much as $1 million more than someone with a high school diploma.
But when you are already working full-time, raising a family, and paying rent or mortgage, financing college can be a deterrent and downright daunting. The good news is that there are multiple and growing ways to make college more affordable for adult learners. The first is finding an employer who will help you pay for it. The Statista Research Department reported in their January 2021 study that 56 percent of employers offered undergraduate or graduate school tuition assistance to their employees. Usually, this caps off at $5,250 a year per employee, but when you are going back to school part-time, that amount subsidizes a big chunk of your tuition. Some employers like Starbucks and Walmart have even partnered with universities to take the financial weight off of employees. Suddenly, making lattes and greeting customers have never sounded like better jobs.
Most adult learners are part-time and unfortunately not eligible for federal financial aid. However, grants and scholarships can greatly lessen the list price of tuition. Most universities offer recruitment scholarships, hardship grants, completion grants, military aid, and merit scholarships. Some may even consider waiving a previous account balance. As a college administrator, I can attest that finding these cost-savings is not easy; you won’t find them explicitly listed on university webpages. But they are there — just ask. Start with the division of online learning or your office of financial aid. There is also pandemic relief available for the next two years. Unlike the initial CARES Act passed under Trump a year ago which excluded online learners from receiving student hardship funds, enrolled online learners are eligible to benefit from the American Rescue Plan (ARP) passed this March. The ARP will dole out nearly $40 billion to universities to spend primarily on student needs-based grants.
If you are in the camp who thinks online learning isn’t a viable path to a degree or worry that your employer won’t recognize it, let’s look at the current landscape. According to Eduventures, a Boston-based higher education market research firm, over 3 million undergraduates and graduates are studying fully online today at one of more than 2,000 universities across the nation. These are not traditional 18 to 22-year-olds, but adults 25 and older returning to school, often with the goal of finishing their degree. In a 2019 Online Learning Market Update, Eduventures projects that by 2025, 22% of all university students in the U.S. will be fully online. Online is now fully mainstream and employers partnering with universities is proof it’s a credible path.
Today, the online learning experience has improved dramatically compared to what it looked like 10 even five years ago. Faculty at reputable and highly ranked institutions complete rigorous training to teach online. They have access to instructional designers and multimedia experts to ensure their online classroom is well-designed and interactive. Students should expect three forms of engagement: student to instructor, student to student and student to content. Plus, there are numerous and growing student services to help, including access to student success coaches, free tutoring, low-cost and no-cost textbooks, experiential learning, and alumni mentoring.
Universities are acutely aware that there are fewer high school graduates moving on to college. Their numbers have been steadily decreasing since 2013 due to a high school population decrease, which will persist until 2023, according to the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education. As a nation, we risk falling further behind other developed nations if fewer students from high school go on to college. Therefore, many universities are now focused and eager to please the sheer number of adult learners, especially those with some college but no degree. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center’s Some College, No Degree report, more than 36 million Americans hold some postsecondary education but have not completed and are no longer enrolled. Data from this study suggests that “10 percent of the population or 3.5 million individuals, have a high potential to attain a credential because they already have finished two years of full-time over the previous 10 years.”
As a consumer, you have 2,000 universities to choose from who now offer online degrees. There are high quality online and lower quality options. Accredited and not accredited. More affordable and ghastly expensive. Be sure to shop around and remember that it’s a buyer’s market out there. Universities are hungry for you to enroll and you are eager to advance in your career and gain social mobility for you and your family. There’s no better time than now.
Jessica DuPont serves as an executive director at Oregon State University Ecampus, and a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.