Colleges and higher education made a lot of headlines this past year, but it was mostly for controversies involving “elite” and wealthy institutions. These universities are important, yes, but they actually connect with very few students. The entire Ivy League has well under 100,000 undergraduates, while the California Community College system has about 1.8 million. Too often, the stories and trends that impact the more than seven million students who attend community colleges and similar institutions are underreported.
But 2023 was actually a great year for these students! A quick look at some of the top trends impacting non-traditional students this past year tells us why.
Prospective Students Are Increasingly Smart Consumers, But College Is Still Worth It
Traditional colleges continued to have see-sawing enrollments in 2023, while non-traditional higher education, such as institutions offering short term credentials, saw increases, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
This data speaks to a potential student body that The Los Angeles Times called increasingly jaded about higher education; however, this can also be seen as consumers making smarter choices. With college costs high and student debt still increasing, it’s fair for people with limited resources to ask whether going to college is worth the risk.
But while some traditional colleges may no longer be as cost effective, the data tells a clear story: a college education still makes a big difference toward a successful career.
Jobs for the college educated rebounded to their pre-pandemic levels years ahead of jobs that don’t require a college education. In many ways, people with and without college education live in different economies.
A study by Opportunity@Work showed that:
- It takes 30 years of work experience for an adult without a college degree to catch up to the wage a bachelor’s degree holder earns on the first day of their career.
- There are now 7.5 million jobs in the economy that used to be accessible to people without a college degree, but now require one.
- In none of the 50 largest metro regions in the U.S. do people without college degrees earn equal pay for equal work when compared to bachelor’s degree holders.
Other studies show that, here in California, it can be hard to get a job unless you have the right skills.
So while prospective students are right to ask if the cost of a college education is worth it, there’s no question that access to higher education helps get you ahead. Fortunately, a degree from a traditional college isn’t the only way to earn the benefits of a higher education.
Non-Traditional Students Have Better Options Than Ever
For much of the pandemic, online and distance education options were the only part of the higher education system to see growing enrollment. That’s no longer the case, but they are still growing. And not only are they still growing, they’re getting better.
A recent survey, conducted by Champlain College Online, shows that;
- 90% of adults find online education effective in equipping students with the knowledge and skills necessary to succeed in their careers
- 80% of adults would consider an online program if enrolling in undergraduate or graduate education
- 77% of adults think online higher education is the same or better at meeting the needs of students ages 23+ when compared to on-campus higher education (a 20% increase from 2017)
- 64% of adults believe the value of an online degree for the tuition dollar is equal to or more than the value of an on-campus degree (a 20% increase from 2017)
- 53% of adults think online higher education is the same or better at meeting the needs of students ages 17-22 when compared to on-campus higher education (a 33% increase from 2017)
“The statistics tell a convincing story – online degree programs are viewed as a strategic choice rather than a compromise for those seeking a dynamic and accommodating educational journey,” the study’s authors wrote.
In 2023, students had access to the full range of options they had before – and more. Traditional, in-person classes re-opened across the country while many colleges now have much more robust online offerings than they had prior to the pandemic.
They are also becoming increasingly innovative. Certification programs, micro-credentials, and private companies offering direct training in their technologies are forming new models of education that are being embraced by students, and showing great results. Research shows that earning micro-credentials and certifications can substantially benefit someone’s career the same way that a traditional college degree can.
Perhaps that’s why:
Online Enrollment Continues To Grow
According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, the percentage of students enrolled only in online education is twice as high as it was before the pandemic: in 2017, only 15.7% of students were enrolled exclusively in online programs, now it’s 30.4%.
And while online education still represents a relatively small portion of total college enrollment, it has continued to grow in absolute numbers. At a time when college enrollment as a whole is still dropping, and many institutions are treading water, undergraduate enrollment at online colleges is up 3.2% from last year.
College Innovation Helps Those Who Need It Most
Put it all together and it’s clear that the education story of 2023 is this: many traditional colleges are struggling because prospective students are increasingly savvy about the costs and limitations of traditional higher education models. But students now have more—and better— options, than they ever have before, and they’re taking advantage of it. For many institutions, the higher education landscape has never been worse. For many students, it’s never been better.