With unemployment still high in New Hampshire and across the country, more people are thinking about going back to school.
Southern New Hampshire University President Paul LeBlanc said he is reminded of the years after the 2008 financial crisis.
“This is very reminiscent of 2009, 2010, the last recession, when you have a lot of unemployment,” LeBlanc said.
People who are out of work want to finish degrees, get certifications and learn new skills, he said, so they can get new, better jobs.
“We’re seeing this across the sector. You’re even seeing it in things like Masterclass” online classes. “Their subscriptions have shot up.”
Compared to this time last year, SNHU is receiving about 25% more inquiries about enrolling.
“We know we’ll see an increase in enrollments in the summer, and we expect a substantial increase in September,” LeBlanc said. “One of the things we learned the hard way, back in 2010, is you have to hire ahead of the curve.”
The university is bringing on about 200 people to work in its admissions department. Some of those jobs will be in New Hampshire. Others will be in an Arizona call center the university runs. LeBlanc said others might be remote jobs.
SNHU recently surveyed 900 unemployed people with a mix of education levels, according to LeBlanc. He said 65% of those surveyed said they wanted to change industries. Many hope to leave retail, restaurants and travel and move into health care and technology, and they want the skills to get those jobs, he said.
“These are people who don’t have the luxury of thinking about a two- or four-year degree,” LeBlanc said. “When this economy reopens they want to be ready to go back to work.”
Even after the pandemic recedes and the economy recovers, LeBlanc believes people will want to keep learning new skills on a regular basis. They might not want degrees, but certifications that might only take a few days’ or even hours’ training to qualify for a position or a promotion.
The state’s community colleges are seeing increased interest as well.
New Hampshire Technical Institute’s academic advising office has never been busier, said Rebecca Dean, the college’s associate vice president for student success and enrollment management. Advisers are in back-to-back meetings with current and new students, she said.
Certification programs have become more popular, and the college has gotten a lot of inquiries about its “micro-credential” program, which requires just three courses to get a certificate.
The college’s online offerings are increasing in popularity, too. “These are not necessarily students looking to be enrolled at NHTI. They’re community members,” Dean said.
She estimated the college is receiving about double the inquiries it did this time last year. At a recent Zoom meeting, the student success office hoped 50 people would sign on to hear about course offerings, but 150 people logged on.
“I think people, in the instability, some people are yearning for that stability,” Dean said.
College is going to be different after the pandemic, LeBlanc predicted. It has to be, he said, as the cost of higher education grows.
LeBlanc said public universities are not as affordable as they once were, so he believes it’s up to institutions like SNHU to help low-income people gain higher education.
“States have divested from their public education systems. They don’t support them in the ways they once did,” LeBlanc said, so the cost has shifted to the students.
He said accreditors and federal regulators share some of the blame, as do the colleges themselves, who are engaged in an arms race for amenities and status. Meanwhile, he said, half of all college students arrive on campus unprepared for college-level math and writing.
“We have a system that’s both broken and more expensive,” LeBlanc said.
He said American higher education has reinvented itself in times of crisis. Public universities began amid the Civil War. World War II created the G.I. Bill and the community college movement.
Both upheavals, LeBlanc said, democratized higher education.
“When we’ve had a catalyst of this magnitude in the past, higher education has transformed.”