When it comes to onboarding new staff, employers with a mind to the future should consider the benefits of taking a skills-based approach rather than looking for a graduation date.
The pandemic has drastically changed the game when it comes to college applications and enrollments in many ways. One particularly significant effect is that over 1600 colleges decided to go test-optional, meaning that students were not required to submit their SAT or ACT scores. As a result, according to Common App data only 46% of students who used the Common App sent their scores to prospective colleges compared to 77% of students last year.
In some ways this is excellent news for students who are members of underserved communities, as studies have shown that despite the claims that standardized tests level the playing field, “inequalities in the SAT score distribution reflect and reinforce racial inequalities across generations.” With this major hurdle cleared, applicants are now leveraging this more equitable playing field, and applications to Ivy League and other top-tier institutions have exploded; Harvard received 57,000 applications from prospective students (up 42% from 2019), Cornell received 17,000 more applications than usual, and UCLA received nearly 140,000 applications, 30,626 more than last year. 
However, that’s not the full story. Like many other aspects of life, COVID-19 has widened the gap between the haves and the have-nots when it comes to higher education, too. While some colleges are accepting higher-than-usual numbers of students to ensure robust enrollment in the fall, there’s more to this story. A staggering 7.7 million to 10 million adults canceled plans to take postsecondary classes last fall because of financial constraints related to the pandemic. And while applications are rolling in for top-tier institutions, community colleges are being hit hard: enrollment is down 9.5%, more than double the 4.5% enrollment drop experienced by four-year colleges.  As one may expect, these numbers for minorities in particular dropped significantly, down 19% for Black students and 16% for Hispanic students. As Scott Jashik of Inside Higher Ed notes, “Application increases at top colleges will not (by themselves) translate into more access to higher education.”
That’s not the only thing reinforcing racial and class divides; tuition costs at a time of record unemployment have forced many to opt out of higher ed. While the Georgia Board of Regents voted on April 13th to freeze tuitions and fees for the 2021-2022 school year, a move that will benefit students attending the state’s 26 public colleges and universities, it was only one of a very few organizations to do so. Despite the campaigns advocating for lowered tuition that became prevalent last year, many institutions of higher learning nevertheless raised enrollment costs in 2020 and 2021 for students attending in-person, remotely, and using hybrid learning.
This creates a perfect storm for inequality to flourish as the educational landscape undergoes drastic changes. New college graduates just entering the workforce may have pandemic-related gaps in their educational and work history, as will other, more seasoned applicants over the next few years. Indeed, it will narrow the field as many will be forced out and unable to return. However, while there may be higher levels of individuals who were unable to attend or finish college, interest in non-degree programs has spiked. These include short-term skills-based options such as coding bootcamps, certificate training, or simply taking online courses without the intention of completing a full degree. Moody’s anticipates that the pandemic will “accelerate growth of nontraditional programs such as undergraduate nondegree/certificate programs,” and Google, IBM, Facebook, Salesforce, and Microsoft are all creating credential programs.
With this in mind, when it comes to searching for new hires and onboarding new staff, employers with a mind to the future should consider the benefits of taking a skills-based approach rather than looking for a graduation date. This is important because, as Cheryl Hayes said to PBS, “it's about equity and opportunity. Not everyone can stop what they're doing to go to class full time during the day. And, so, shorter programming that kind of helps them stair-step a little at a time is where we really meet the need.” Not only that, but offering certification and other learning opportunities as part of their benefits package can help employees build their skillset and invest in their future growth personally, professionally, and financially. Perceptive employees know it’s not just about salary, and that benefits can oftentimes be even more important. Continuing education and opportunities for growth can attract new hires while also paying for themselves several times over, not just for the employee, but for the employer as well.
These articles are prepared for general purposes and are not intended to provide advice or encourage specific behavior. Before taking any action, Advisors and Plan Sponsors should consult with their compliance, finance and legal teams.
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