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When Times Get Tough, Adults Go Back to School

Interview with Peter Smith, Ed.D.


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Peter Smith, Ed.D., is the Senior Vice President for Academic Strategies and Development at Kaplan Higher Education. He is also a regular contributor to the Rethinking Higher Education blog.

I interviewed Mr. Smith to learn more about an Education and Economy survey conducted by Kaplan University. Here's what he had to say:

Kaplan recently conducted an education and economy survey that indicated adults often consider going back to school during tough times. Can you tell us a little bit more about that survey?

We wanted to do the Education and Economy survey to find out what people thought about educational attainment and our country’s ability to compete in the global economy. We found that the connection between the two is strong. Eighty-three percent of U.S. adults agree that the U.S. is falling behind other nations economically, and 71 percent say that the nation can improve its standing if more people earn college degrees.

Interestingly, this corresponds with what Department of Labor data is telling us about the increasing skill gap between the current labor market and available jobs. Most of the new jobs being created require a college degree. Of the 50 top-paying careers, only two (air traffic controller and nuclear power reactor operator) do not require a 4-year college degree, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. We are finished with the career era, where one obtained a job and stayed in it forever. Today, it’s all about career management, which requires workers to adapt to new skill requirements, new technologies and constant change. Fewer than half the workforce is prepared to meet these demands, and with a significant proportion of older workers preparing for retirement, a huge canyon is opening up.

The survey also confirmed that a faltering economy tends to drive people back into the classroom to sharpen their skills. 91 percent of U.S. adults feel finishing a degree, seeking a higher degree or continuing education makes someone more attractive to potential employers, according to the survey.

The same survey found that 90 percent of U.S. adults feel that furthering their education can increase their earning potential and opportunities for promotion. Is this perception accurate?

Yes, it does pay to further one's education. According to U.S. census data, people with a bachelor's degree earned 90 percent more than high school graduates in 2007. On average, college graduates earned $59,365 annually compared with high school graduates who earn $33,609.

Another interesting survey result: 84 percent of high school-educated, employed adults are worried about losing their job or not being able to find a new job if let go, while only 63 percent of college-educated adults are concerned. Why do you think college graduates feel more secure in their job?

College graduates feel more secure because they are more secure. The less education one has, the less he/she earns and the higher the likelihood of he/she becoming unemployed. Having a degree makes a person more competitive than someone with a high school diploma.

That’s not to say that people without degrees do not have the talent it takes to successfully complete college. It often means they have not found a program that they felt was accessible to them. That’s why Kaplan University is re-doubling is efforts to personalize education for previously marginalized students. It is critical for post-secondary institutions to provide prospective students with practical education options that will open up higher education to a broader audience and increase the ability of these individuals to complete.

How exactly can education play a role in today's tumultuous economy?

The United States Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable recently polled CEOs to find out what qualities they wanted in new employees. At the top of the list, it was specified that they wanted workers who could adapt to change, had a global mindset, were critical thinkers and had solid writing skills. The CEOs understand that the skills required for jobs will change, but they want workers who can think and thinkers who can work. These are skills typically learned in college.

Education provides people with the ability to compete for better, higher-paying and more highly skilled jobs. When the economy is in turmoil and there are more job candidates competing for fewer positions, education could be a key factor in deciding who gets the job.

Additionally, during tough economic times, people tend to return to school to sharpen their skills. Earning a certificate or degree in a specialized skill often makes an individual stand out amongst his or her peers, which improves job security and one’s ability to compete in the global economy.

I get a lot of letters from adults who want to continue their education, but hesitate because they are afraid it will take too much time and money. Should these worries coupled with fears of a deepening economic recession hold students back?

The worsening economy should not hold anyone back from pursuing an education. However, Kaplan University encourages prospective students to shop around, not only for a university’s quality and accreditation information, but to also learn transfer of credit policies and about programs that offer the shortest timetable to a degree. Transferring previously earned credit and enrolling in accelerated degree programs are more likely to make the education less expensive.

Kaplan would be an excellent choice for anyone who is looking to personalize their degree program and integrate the learning with an otherwise busy life. Students do not need to leave their jobs to complete their degree with us because we offer more than 100 academic programs online. So, while a student is working on earning a degree they also maintain their current income. Additionally, financial aid is available to students who qualify. While taking on loans is not an attractive option for many students, research has shown that earning a degree can increase earning potential and competitiveness.

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