Job outlook optimism is declining among Americans in many sectors, as shown by recent CivicScience data. More people today feel it will become increasingly difficult to find a job in the next six months. 

What could that mean for education? With the job market instability caused by COVID and the resulting economic conditions, are more adults heading back to school to switch careers? How likely are the youngest adults to pursue a college education?

A new CivicScience survey finds that 11% of U.S. adults are considering returning to school to pursue a new career path. Eight percent of adults are already doing just that.

Unemployed adults who report they lost their job and/or are unable to find work are the most likely to consider returning to school to change careers. However, survey results show that employed adults working remotely are the most likely to currently be enrolled in a program with the goal of switching careers. This may correspond with findings from earlier this year showing a general decline in job happiness among remote workers. 

People who work in technical or medical fields and craftsmen and laborers (as of June 2021) are the most likely to consider going back to school to change careers. On the other hand, those in operations and sales are the most likely to have already gone back to school over the course of the pandemic.

What kinds of education programs are returning adults likely to pursue? 

Current and Prospective Enrollment Stats 

A survey looking at overall enrollment trends shows that 23% of adult respondents (aged 18+) say they are enrolled in some type of education program.

Among those enrolled right now, nearly two-thirds (65%) are enrolled in traditional higher education programs – associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral programs. The remaining third of respondents are on non-traditional tracks, such as continuing education programs, trade certification or license programs, or “other” types of education programs.

Tracking the pipeline, one-third of respondents aged 13 and up say they are planning to pursue some type of education program in the future (or are currently enrolled).

A total of 71% of Gen Zers (ages 13-24) plan to pursue (or are currently pursuing) one or more higher education programs. That’s followed by just over half of Millennials and one-quarter of Gen Xers.

What kind of programs are future students looking for? Here are three key insights:

  • Among 13- to 24-year-olds who plan to pursue an education program, bachelor’s and master’s programs rank at the top. 
  • Among those 25 and older with education goals, over one-quarter plan to get a master’s degree. At the same time, more than one-in-five plan to pursue continuing education and/or trade certification and licensing programs.
  • And among those who have returned to school or intend to go back to school? More may be setting their sights on a master’s, bachelor’s, or doctoral degree, over non-traditional approaches.

Online Programs Rank Well Among ‘Back-to-Schoolers’

For many returning students, online education programs may be the way to go.

Data show that more than 20% of the Gen Pop aged 13 and up say they are at least somewhat interested in completing a full college degree program online.

Those percentages increase dramatically when segmented by adults (18+) interested in going back to school to change careers. More than one-third of adults considering going back to school are very favorable to a full online program, and an additional 38% are somewhat favorable.

What’s more, usage of informal online education platforms, such as LinkedIn Learning and Coursera, soars among those who are currently back in school changing careers, indicating these tools may be highly valuable to anyone pursuing that path.

What’s the Value of a College Education?

Survey results show that while non-traditional education programs are finding a place among Americans, traditional college education largely leads – that’s further reflected by reports that applications are up at universities, a surge after the lull brought by COVID in 2020. 

Even so, Americans remain fractured over the perceived value of a college education. Exactly half of those aged 13 and up feel that a college degree is not worth the cost, while the other half agree that it is (excluding those who are uncertain).

And just a mere 29% believe that a college degree is an important factor for a successful career.

Given the high cost of a college education, previous CivicScience findings from October 2021 revealed that more Americans were beginning to view trade or vocational schools as better options than traditional colleges. More than half continue to maintain that outlook in 2022; although at the moment, that sentiment is largely not reflected among current enrollment trends, where traditional college education programs still dominate.

In conclusion, education is diversifying but traditional college education is still the most sought-after path for those pursuing higher education, including adults who are going back to school with hopes of switching careers during a tumultuous economic climate.