In the earliest days of the pandemic, researchers at Strada Center for Education Consumer Insights realized leaders across our nation would need a real-time understanding of how people were experiencing, thinking about, and feeling about work and education. The research team launched a regular survey, Public Viewpoint, to make these insights widely available — ultimately including more than 25,000 survey participants over the course of 2020.

The survey continues in 2021. But the findings from last year’s survey offer valuable guidance that education leaders and policymakers can use in 2021. Among those takeaways:

  • Learners lack confidence — both in the value of higher education and their ability to succeed in it. Even among currently enrolled students and disrupted workers most interested in enrolling in education or training, fewer than 1 in 5 strongly agree education will be worth the cost. “It says they have a lot of hope, but not a lot of confidence,” Dave Clayton, who leads the Center for Education Consumer Insights and is a senior vice president at Strada Education Network, told Inside Higher Ed in a recent interview about Strada Public Viewpoint research. “People need to move beyond belief and hope to the personal confidence they need in order to take action and pursue the education or training they want and need.”Yet learners don’t just lack confidence in the system. More than half of Americans identify doubts in themselves — a belief that they’ve been out of school too long or can’t succeed in college — as a major barrier to pursuing more education.
  • The postsecondary education system’s ability to connect to career opportunities is more important than ever. Years’ worth of surveys have shown career opportunity is a top motivator for pursuing postsecondary education. But in a recent Strada survey of students currently enrolled in four-year institutions, 1 in 5 said COVID-19 made their career exploration opportunities “much worse.”Meanwhile, among aspiring adult learners, 68 percent now prefer nondegree programs — compared to 50 percent who preferred them before the pandemic. Clayton notes that this preference is often driven by the perception that short-term credentials are more relevant to career paths, though research is lacking on whether these credentials yield a return on investment.
  • The impact of the pandemic has not been equally distributed. While enrollment numbers are down universally, the data are especially alarming among Black and Latino students. In the spring and fall of 2020, 1 in 3 Latinos and 1 in 4 Black Americans reported they had either canceled education plans or delayed enrollment, compared to 1 in 6 white Americans. Meanwhile, Latinos and Black Americans also were more likely to lose jobs or income during the pandemic.Considering Black and Latino Americans remain more likely than white Americans to say they plan to enroll in the next five years, education leaders face a challenge in turning their interest into action.
  • There’s reason to believe online and hybrid learning will have staying power. The transition to online learning was abrupt, essential — and, for many, messy. Although 29 percent of current students say online learning made their ability to learn “much worse,” Americans overall show a strong interest in online and hybrid programs.Six in 10 Americans say they would prefer either an online or hybrid option even if COVID-19 weren’t a threat, these solutions will continue to attract students and be valued opportunities with broad appeal.
  • Americans still believe in the promise of education. Two-thirds of the public agree that in a time of economic uncertainty, getting more education will be essential to having a good job. Intentions to enroll are also high as more than 1 in 5 people say they plan to enroll in education or training in the next six months. For individuals who’ve lost their job or income, the proportion is 40 percent.Yet postsecondary education enrollment numbers are down. “Greater transparency and clarity about the connections between education pathways and work outcomes are needed to give education consumers the confidence to act,” Clayton says. “The emotional predisposition is strong, but they need the proof points about the return on investment they can expect.”