Photo: Nikos Frazier | Journal & Courier

The headline in yesterday’s print edition of the New York Times caught the eye of a college president who emailed me before dawn: “Employers paying for degrees—and for children and spouses of workers, too,” he wrote. “Just in time for our demographic cliff!”

The president, who told me I could quote the email as long as I didn’t name him or his institution, leads a small private college. It’s not a struggling one at risk of closure, but it’s not one sitting on a billion dollar endowment either. The demographic cliff coming in the middle of this decade for colleges is something I wrote about recently in NEXT.

The “working adult student” is often the antidote for college leaders worried about the falloff in high school graduates. Now with some employers partnering directly with colleges and footing the tuition bill, adult students are even more attractive to institutions. But tapping that market is not always as easy as colleges assume, something we’ll explore below.

☕️ Good morning, and thanks for reading NEXT. Today’s edition—1,500 words and a 4-minute read—looks at the rising number of companies offering college benefits, the latest enrollment figures from the spring, and new research on whether students are learning critical thinking skills in college.

?NEXT on Instagram and LinkedIn Live. Join me most Thursdays at Noon ET for Ask Me Anything sessions about admissions or anything college related, as well as interviews with the people in higher ed you want to hear from the most.

Photo: Brady Rodgers on unsplash

The Lure of the Degree

Nearly everywhere you go, there are Help Wanted signs. Even amid a glut of jobs—and despite a relatively high unemployment rate—the federal government reported this week nearly 4 million Americans still quit their job in April, the most on record.

What’s happening: “Determined to lure new employees and retain existing ones in a suddenly hot job market, employers are turning to new incentives that go beyond traditional monetary rewards,” the New York Times reported this week.

  • Waste Management will pay for its 36,000 U.S. workers to earn bachelor’s and associate degrees as well as certificates in some 170 programs, including data analytics and business management, in a partnership with Guild Education, whose technology allows employers to provide upskilling and education to employees.
  • In January, Waste Management will extend benefits to spouses and children of workers.
  • JBS USA, the nation’s largest meatpacker, started paying for college degrees in March for its 66,000 employees, as well as one child per worker, the New York Times reported.

Why It Matters: Traditionally, employers offered partial reimbursement to workers who wanted to take college classes. Not only were those courses usually related to their job, but employees had to pay tuition upfront and wait until they completed a course or degree to get the money from their employer.

  • Guild, which recently announced it raised another $150 million—bringing its valuation to $3.75 billion—operates a learning platform that allows employers to be much more intentional about upskilling and educating their workforce.
  • Guild’s technology and coaches assist workers at companies such as Chipotle and Walmart in discovering what skills they need and then guides them to educational opportunities available through partnerships that Guild has forged with universities and other learning providers.   

By the numbers: The educational incentives are partly designed to reduce turnover. “Each time an hourly employee leaves Waste Management, it costs a minimum of $12,000 to search for and hire a replacement.”

  • Among drivers, “50 percent of safety incidents involve those with three years or less on the job.”

The big picture: When the pandemic hit, many in higher education thought that Guild and similar organizations, including Bright Horizons’ EdAssist Solutions and Arizona State’s InStride, which operate in the space between employers, employees, and colleges would shrink as unemployment rose and companies no longer needed to offer education benefits. But the opposite happened.

“The practical reality is that the knowledge economy demands new skills even in a labor market in the middle of a pandemic,” Paul Freedman, president of Guild’s learning marketplace, told me.

Yes, but: Colleges shouldn’t expect that the likes of Guild will solve their enrollment problems by partnering them up with employers who have a stable of students.

  • Guild works with educational providers, such as Southern New Hampshire University, Brandman University, the University of Arizona, and Paul Quinn College, among others that have have scale to either serve employees in different industries or multiple locations. Freedman said.
  • “As we continue to grow into different industries, in health care, for example, or different geographies, we’ll need to fill gaps with programs that are good for working learners, high quality, and low cost,” Freedman told me.
  • There’s still a chance for colleges to partner with Guild, but they’ll be “targeted additions” he said, or an alliance or consortium of several institutions that could bring a diversity of programs and geography.

Bottom line: Ever since Arizona State University announced a partnership with Starbucks in 2014 to educate its employees, colleges have been looking for that one big employer partner—that Hail Mary pass that could provide a winning strategy to attract adult students.

  • “What universities should be considering are bite-size partnerships by starting with their local and regional employers,” Freedman said.

? Hold the fries: The lure in this job market is not always education. Applebee’s announced last month vouchers for a free appetizer to anyone who scheduled an interview. They were aiming for 10,000 applicants. They got 40,000.

Spring Enrollment Plummets

Enrollment in higher education fell by slightly more than 600,000 students this spring compared to last, according to a new numbers out this morning from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

What’s happening: A decline in undergraduate students was entirely to blame for the overall drop; graduate enrollment was a bright spot, increasing by 124,000 students.

  • Community colleges continued to be hit the hardest. Their enrollment declined by 9.5%, some 476,000 students.

Inside the numbers: Fewer students enrolled in California colleges this spring than anywhere else in the nation. The Golden State saw its enrollment drop by 123,000 students.

  • Only seven states experienced enrollment growth: New Hampshire, Utah, West Virginia, Nebraska, Virginia, Idaho, and Maryland.
  • Enrollment of traditional students, 18-24 years old, declined more than adult students (5% vs 1.2%).
  • Male students skipped college in greater numbers than female students—5.5% vs. 2%— exacerbating the already exisiting gender divide in higher education.
  • Business, health care, and the liberal arts continue to be the top picks among undergraduate majors. Over the last year, computer science and psychology had the biggest gains in enrollment.

Be smart: Higher education analyst and consultant, Phil Hill, points out in his blog that institutions seeing record enrollments this year are mostly those that made a big bet on online education before the pandemic and thus had the know-how to provide a better remote experience. 

Read more from the National Student Clearinghouse

Photo: Jeswin Thomas on Unsplash

What College Students Are Learning

A new paper makes the case that the gain in students’ critical thinking skills during their college years is smaller than what’s been reported in previous studies. 

Why it matters: Researchers have found that critical thinking skills are connected to better academic performance as well as superior performance on the job.

Background: A survey of American college freshmen conducted annually by UCLA has consistently shown since the Great Recession of 2008 that students see college through a single lens—as a means to a good job. Yet there is also evidence from various studies that what students learn in college—or more likely don’t learn—makes them ill-prepared for the job market.

  • In survey after survey, hiring managers and business executives say they’re looking for newly minted college graduates with critical thinking skills, but not often finding them.
  • Complaints from employers about the preparedness of new college graduates is nothing new—they date back decades.
  • Meanwhile, colleges say their job is not to train students for a job, but the task has largely fallen to them because employers don’t operate training programs like they used to.

Glossary: The term “critical thinking” is tossed around a lot by academics and employers although they don’t always adequately explain what they mean.

  • Critical thinking typically includes analytical reasoning, logical reasoning, systems thinking, and synthetic thinking. It has also been associated with decision making and problem solving as well as inquisitiveness, confidence, and open-mindedness.

What’s new: Researchers from the Educational Testing Service and Roblox, the online game platform, examined data from some 2,500 freshmen and seniors enrolled in 46 colleges and universities who had taken a test of critical thinking skills.

  • Natural science majors performed the highest in gains of critical thinking skills; business majors performed the lowest.
  • Seniors who took four or more courses related to critical thinking performed highest, although the number of courses didn’t seem to matter in the results since students who didn’t have any courses related to critical thinking also had gains.
  • What seems to have made a difference? Students taking classes that frequently required them to apply critical thinking skills. They performed significantly better than those who indicated their courses rarely required it.


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Until next time, Cheers — Jeff

To get in touch, find me on TwitterFacebookInstagram, and LinkedIn.

Jeff has written about higher education for more than two decades and is a New York Times bestselling author of three books. His latest, Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions, was published in September...