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Pros and Cons: Should Adult Learners Go Back to School?

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Massive job loss has pushed many working Americans to pursue higher education in the past. But with all the uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 downturn, is now the right time to go back to school?

The Great Recession of 2008 caused a spike in college enrollment. Between 2007-2010, the number of college students increased by almost 2.5 million, according to The Hechinger Report. Most of them were nontraditional students — also known as adult learners — over the age of 25.

Nontraditional students tend to have specific goals in mind when they enroll: higher wages, better employment prospects, and work in a particular field. But do those goals match what students need now?

Having a bachelor's degree or a higher level of education has been a safety net during the COVID-19 pandemic: Statistics show that workers are worse off without a four-year college degree. This was also true during the Great Recession.

To avoid the tumultuous labor market, adults with some college but no degree — more than 36 million Americans, as of 2019 — may return to college. Those who have bachelor's degrees might consider grad school for the same reason.

However, a report by Eduventures indicates fewer economically distressed adults are going to college during this recession than they have in the past. Instead, some may be taking quicker paths to a new career through two-year community colleges or alternative credential programs.

There are upsides and downsides to enrolling at this time. Here, we list the top 10 pros and cons of becoming a nontraditional student during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pro: College Graduates Tend to Have Job Security

One reason to pursue a bachelor's degree is job security. Less-educated workers ages 25 and older saw higher unemployment during the initial surge of COVID-19 between February and May, according to an analysis from Pew Research Center.

The unemployment rate for workers with a bachelor's degree or more education was 7.2%, compared to 12.9% for those with some college but no degree, 15% for a high school diploma, and 18.5% for no high school diploma.

 

Why are four-year-or-more college graduates better off? Telework may be one factor that has saved jobs. In February, workers with a college degree were six times more likely to be able to perform their jobs remotely than those without a high school diploma, according to the Pew Research Center.

Many of the workers who became unemployed during this pandemic had jobs that must be done in person. But more often than not, college graduates have jobs they can do online.

The industries with the most access to telework included insurance, technical services, information, wholesale trade, utilities, and credit intermediation.

Adult learners who pursue degrees within those fields, including computer science, business, and economics, may have a better chance of landing a secure job after graduation.

Con: Future Grads May Face a Tough Job Market

Future college graduates may struggle to land a job until the pandemic is under control.

The class of 2020 has faced the worst labor market since the Great Depression. Many graduates saw full-time job offers vanish because of the coronavirus.

It could take this year's grads 10 years or more to recover from the current economic conditions, according to The Atlantic. The actual result depends in part on how soon the economy can fully recover.

Researchers have discovered many long-term effects of graduating into a recession. They include sustained higher rates of unemployment for high-school graduates and lower earnings for everyone when compared with peers graduating a year or two earlier or later.

These factors, combined with the uncertainty of the coronavirus, might make it more difficult for future grads to land jobs or find positions that pay what they deserve.

Pro: College Graduates Have Higher Earning Potential

Higher wages are a common reason for workers to decide to switch careers. If you're not a college graduate, the first step toward this goal is simple: Get a bachelor's degree.

The median starting salary for workers with bachelor's degrees was $66,612 in 2019. That's more than twice the national median for workers who only have a high school diploma.

Bachelor's degree holders also earn, on average, $1 million more than high school graduates over their lifetimes, according to a study by Georgetown University. Potential earnings increase with higher degrees.

Adult learners who already have a bachelor's degree may be able to increase their salaries with more education. The average starting salary for graduates with a master's degree was $82,275 in 2019.

It's unclear how long the disruption of COVID-19 will last. If the economy suffers a prolonged depression, the effects may be drastic, even for future college graduates.

But no matter how you look at it, more education pays. There are sizable economic returns if you go to college and earn at least a two- or four-year degree.

Con: Practical Training May Be Risky or Unavailable Right Now

Majors that have in-person requirements may be more affected than those that do not.

For example, nursing programs often require a certain number of clinical hours to graduate. But training in a clinical setting means possible exposure to infected patients.

While some students will have the option to learn remotely or social distance on campus, others will need practical training in clinics, hospitals, and salons to graduate. These students may face a higher risk of not finishing their degrees.

Some students pursuing more practical degrees are facing legal dilemmas about their safety in school. For example, a medical school in South Carolina has asked students to sign a COVID-19 waiver so students won't sue if they contract coronavirus while on clinical rotations.

Pro: Remote Learning Provides Flexibility and Avoids Coronavirus

Students heading back to school will have to weigh the risk of attending college on campus versus enrolling online. Health experts worry that there will be outbreaks of COVID-19 when in-person classes resume. At least 6,300 cases originated from 270 colleges throughout the pandemic, according to the New York Times.

During this pandemic, online education can provide a safer path to a college degree. Virtual classes also tend to be more accessible for working adults.

Online classes are typically delivered in two modes: asynchronous and synchronous. Asynchronous lessons can be accessed at any time, while synchronous lectures happen in real-time.

Con: Remote Learning Is Not for Everyone

Online education comes with its own unique challenges compared to in-person learning.

Some common issues facing online students include a lack of digital literacy, technical difficulties, time management, and motivation, according to Purdue University Global. Online students may also feel a sense of disconnection from classmates and professors.

A lack of one-on-one time with professors was a significant hurdle for students who transitioned from in-person to virtual classes in the spring, according to students who participated in TheBestSchools' recent survey.

Online students may struggle with other responsibilities outside of college, too, such as family and work. Communication with professors and peers can also be more complicated and time-consuming without the immediacy of face-to-face interactions.

Pro: In-Demand Degrees Have Upside

A college degree is even more valuable if it's in demand.

Three of the top 10 most in-demand jobs on LinkedIn in March — including certified public accountant, healthcare specialist, and psychologist — required a bachelor's degree or higher.

The nursing industry, which was one of the fastest-growing occupations before the COVID-19 outbreak, also needs more workers to meet the demand for healthcare during the pandemic.

Another growing industry, computer science, will be among the most well-paid in-demand degrees if previous estimates hold up. Computer science grads will have an average starting salary of $68,668, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE).

Con: College Degrees Take Time to Complete

A four-year college degree is a considerable time commitment, even with the flexibility of online programs. That could be challenging for adults who still have to pay the bills.

The average time to completion for a bachelor's degree is 5.1 academic years, according to a 2016 report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Graduation time varies depending on several factors, including enrollment status and whether the student took any temporary withdrawals.

A lengthy degree may not be practical if you're a parent, legal guardian, or working adult. For these demographics, a two-year associate degree or an alternative credential can offer a speedier path to a new career.

Alternative credentials are certificates awarded by an accredited university, college, or technical school. The focus is typically narrower than a college degree, covering practical skill sets like financial reporting, family therapy, or nursing specializations.

Associate degrees are offered at community colleges, technical colleges, vocational schools, and some four-year universities. They are less time-consuming than four-year bachelor's degrees. They may lead to a variety of well-paying jobs, including advertising sales agents, air traffic controllers, and allergy technicians.

Pro: Eligibility for Federal Student Aid

Many nontraditional students who attend school at least half time can access federal student loans to help pay for college.

More than 13 million students collectively receive more than $120 billion in federal grants, work-study funds, and loans every year. The most popular are subsidized and unsubsidized loans administered through the Federal Direct Loan Program, which provides low-interest financing without credit checks.

Payments aren't due on federal loans until after you graduate, leave school, or change your enrollment status to less than half-time. They can also be refinanced, temporarily postponed, or partially forgiven, and they have no age restrictions.

Other benefits of federal loans include fixed interest rates, income-based repayment options, and loan-forgiveness opportunities. Their interest rates are also often lower than private loans, which can require payments while students are still enrolled.

The coronavirus hasn't diminished federal student aid. Additionally, the CARES Act, which Congress passed in March, provided institutions with relief funds to make emergency grants to students who needed financial assistance for expenses.

Con: Federal Loans Have Limitations

Federal student loans have a few drawbacks. Perhaps the most important is that they don't always cover the full cost of school.

Students are limited in how much they can borrow per year. That number is determined by factors like whether or not they are considered dependents and what year they are in school.

Independent students — those who don't have parental support — may borrow up to $9,500 in their first year, and the limit for three years or more is $32,500.

But the price of tuition and fees has increased by 260% over the past 40 years. Many schools will likely continue to raise tuition by a few percentage points to match rising operating costs, despite the coronavirus.

There is no federal student aid specifically for single parents. Still, federal loans can be used to pay child care costs while a parent is in school. We recommend you speak with the financial aid staff at the school you plan to attend. They may be able to help you find opportunities for additional aid.

Pros and Cons of Going Back to College
Pros Cons
Job security Shaky labor market
Telework career options Risky practical training
Federal Student Aid Possible tuition increases
Higher lifetime earning potential Challenges with remote learning
Flexible online programs Lengthy time to completion
In-demand degrees Limited federal student loans

Conclusion

COVID-19 is making the decision to enter higher education more complicated than ever before. Better job security, higher lifetime earning potential, and access to financial aid are among the positives, but a shaky labor market, possible tuition increases, and lengthy time-to-completion present challenges. Adult learners will have to determine whether college during the time of coronavirus is the right fit for them and their professional goals.

Evan Thompson is a Washington-based writer for TBS covering higher education. He has bylines in the Seattle Times, Tacoma News Tribune, Everett Herald, and others from his past life as a newspaper reporter.

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