This story is featured in the October issue of Seattle Business magazine. Subscribe here to access the print edition.
The pandemic has touched each of our lives in unique ways.
One significant impact has been to workers and learners across the country. Perhaps you know someone who’s been sidelined by the pandemic. Perhaps that someone is you. There have been several people in my family who have been directly impacted by the fallout of the pandemic, including my niece, Hayleigh.
Hayleigh graduated from high school in 2019 and excitedly started classes at a public regional university studying sciences that fall. When the pandemic hit in spring 2020 and classes went virtual, she went home and finished her classes online. Suddenly unsure of the future, Hayleigh made the decision not to enroll in school the next year. Instead, she got a job working with young children.
There, she found her passion and set a goal to become a science teacher.
Hayleigh enrolled at Western Governors University as a pathway to achieve her new goal. She received the university’s Resiliency Grant, like thousands of other students who found themselves in similar circumstances.
Hayleigh’s story is one example of what many students experi-enced during the pandemic. She had a clear path ahead of her, then was blindsided by the unforeseen impacts of the pandemic. Her life plans took a diﬀerent path. She pressed pause on her education, reevaluated her goals and found a way to move forward.
Now that the economy is reopening, it’s time for us to follow Hayleigh’s example.
In order to thrive and meet the evolving demands of the new workforce, we can reskill or upskill. Online learning can be the solution, and studies indicate adult workers are embracing that option. For example, those who experienced a work change during the pandemic are more than three times more likely to enroll in education. In addition, these individuals are seeking diverse learning options during the economic recovery.
Speciﬁcally, among disrupted learners who said they planned to enroll in an education or training program in the next six months, one in four noted they would pursue an online noncollege learning option. The same percentage also thought they would pursue an employer-based learning option.
The data indicate a shift in our approach to education. Workers and learners increasingly look for ﬂexible, alternative learning options to meet their needs. Online higher education is well positioned to meet these changing needs and help disrupted workers get back on track as society reopens. Central to the eﬃcacy of online higher education is its ﬂexibility, cost and timely delivery of accredited credentials.
Approximately half of online college students are ages 28 to 38. Further, 51% of undergraduate students and 70% of graduate students are employed full time, and 41% of all online students are parents. Students ﬁtting this description ﬂock to online colleges for the ﬂexibility in scheduling, location and course oﬀerings.
Online programs make it possible for students to complete coursework at times that work best for them. This ﬂexibility is especially relevant to women, who have disproportionately had to carry the burden of childcare in response to the pandemic.
Typically, online universities can oﬀer less expensive tuition compared to brick-and-mortar universities. This is because there is less overhead, such as building maintenance requirements, staﬃng needs, living expenses for students, etc. Average online undergraduate tuition rates are often under $1,000 per credit hour.
Employees taking part in upskilling have the opportunity to grow and increase their earning potential. More education leads to more reﬁned skills and abilities that are associated with higher pay and stronger beneﬁts. Earning credentials quickly through a high-quality, accredited online program lets students enter the workforce more quickly and usually without a signiﬁcant amount of debt.
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. But now is the time to be bold and courageous and to rethink what we want to do as we emerge from the pandemic.
My niece Hayleigh will tell you: It’s time to get back in the game.
Tonya Drake is regional vice president northwest of Western Governors University and is WGU Washington chancellor.