Comment: When you can’t get to college, bring college to you

Online learning can help disrupted workers retrain and learn news skills to rejoin the workforce.

By Tonya Drake / For The Herald

Maybe you know someone who’s been sidelined by the pandemic. Maybe, that someone is you. If it is, you’re not alone.

Millions of U.S. workers’ lives have been disrupted by the pandemic. Now that the economy is re-opening, it’s time for many of us to get off the sidelines and back in the game. But some of us are finding that the game has changed. Workforce needs have shifted, and skill demands have evolved to meet those needs. If your work was disrupted by the pandemic, it’s time to reskill or upskill. Transitioning into high-demand and flourishing fields is vital to a post-pandemic recovery. Online learning can be the solution, and studies indicate adult workers are embracing that option.

Financial setbacks, competing family responsibilities, barriers to in-person learning and other circumstances have presented roadblocks to pursuing the education and training opportunities many would have under normal circumstances.

A recent study from Strada, Center for Education Consumer Insights, indicates those who experienced a work change during the pandemic are more than three times more likely to intend on enrolling in education. And what’s more, these individuals are seeking diverse learning options during the economic recovery.

Further, among disrupted learners who said they planned to enroll in an education or training program in the next six months, 25 percent said they would pursue an online non-college learning option. Likewise, the same share said they would pursue an employer-based learning option.

The data indicates a shift in our approach to education. Workers and learners alike are seeking flexible, alternative learning options to meet their needs. Online higher education is well positioned to meet our changing needs and help disrupted workers get back on track as society re-opens.

Online degree programs offer valuable educational opportunities to people of all backgrounds. Central to the efficacy of online higher education is its accessibility, flexibility, cost and timely delivery of credentials.

Access: There are often geographic barriers to higher education. A report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that, as of 2018, 20 percent of rural adults 25 and older had at least a bachelor’s degree, compared with 35 percent of urban adults of the same age. For those of us in rural areas, brick-and-mortar post-secondary education is out of reach. Online classes are one way to bridge this gap and help more rural students earn their degrees or work-ready credentials.

Flexibility: With individuals living longer and the baby boom generation aging, young people are increasingly caring for family members. In addition, the burden of childcare has disproportionately fallen on women in response to the pandemic. Some online programs, such as those that follow a competency-based learning model, allow students to log in and learn when it’s most convenient for them. As a result, students gain the flexibility needed to balance work, caregiving and school.

Cost: Many online degree programs are substantially more affordable than degree programs at traditional institutions. While cost and quality can vary as dramatically at online schools as it can at brick-and-mortar schools, average online undergraduate tuition rates are typically under $1,000 per credit hour. These reduced costs are often a result of online schools not operating physical campuses.

Credentials: Employers are looking for candidates who have demonstrated mastery of a subject and have the credentials to prove it. Demonstrating competencies is particularly valuable in an era when technology is evolving rapidly, as are in-demand skills. Earning credentials quickly through an online program lets us enter the workforce faster, and usually without a significant amount of debt.

Employer-based learning opportunities are also emerging as a way for disrupted workers to reskill. For example, some companies are developing programs to provide both employer-specific job skills, and an industry-recognized credential within an affordable certificate program. Programs like these seek to pair workers who do not necessarily have the desire nor the resources for the traditional college experience with the skills they need to compete in the modern economy. These types of programs may be a viable mechanism for displaced workers who must switch careers and start at an entry level position in a new field to reskill.

Though we’ve seen headlines about the declines in higher ed enrollment as a whole, online learning enrollment remains strong. The National Student Clearinghouse reported that institutions that were already providing high-quality online-only programs before the pandemic began saw substantial growth in 2020.

If you are someone who is looking to improve your skills and rejoin the workforce, you might consider nontraditional options like online education as a pathway to new opportunities. It’s time to get back in the game.

Tonya Drake is chancellor of WGU Washington and WGU Northwest regional vice president.

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