Education is widely recognized as a path to higher income and greater economic well-being, but the pandemic has created significant challenges for students of all ages since widespread closures began in March 2020. At the time of the survey, the majority of parents of primary or secondary school children reported that their youngest child in school was attending classes completely or partly with distance learning. Similarly, most students enrolled in higher education completed at least some of their classes online since the pandemic began. Many parents of K–12 students, as well as students enrolled in postsecondary educational programs, viewed the quality of their online education experience to be lower than in-person education along several dimensions.
Disruptions to Primary and Secondary School Education
The pandemic changed the way many children received their education. The mode of learning may have changed multiple times since initial school closures in March, either by parents' choices or by school policies. However, at the time of the survey, most parents said their youngest child enrolled in K–12 education was attending classes completely or partly online (table 16). Nearly half of parents with children in school said their youngest child was attending their classes completely online, while nearly one-fourth attended classes using a combination of in-person and online learning.35
Table 16. Mode of learning for K–12 children (by income, race/ethnicity, urban status, and school type)
|Less than $25,000||22||55||23|
|$100,000 or more||30||43||27|
|Place of residence|
Note: Among parents with a child enrolled in public or private school. Based on the youngest child enrolled in public or private school who lives with their parents and their mode of learning at the time of the survey.
1. School type excludes parents with students enrolled in both public and private schools. Return to table
The mode of learning for K–12 students differed significantly by race and ethnicity. While 27 percent of all parents of children enrolled in public or private school said their youngest child attended their classes completely in person, the children of Black, Hispanic, and Asian parents were less likely to do so. Approximately 6 in 10 Black and Hispanic parents of children in school reported that their youngest child's classes were completely online.
Parents with low income, who were living in metro areas, or whose child was enrolled in public school were also more likely to say their child's classes were completely online.36 Just over half of parents of children in public school said that classes were completely online, compared to less than one-fourth of parents with children in private school.
Many parents of children who were attending classes partially or completely online thought their children were receiving a lower quality education than before the pandemic. A majority of parents whose child's classes were partially or completely online felt their children had access to their teachers and adequate internet and technology, yet only 22 percent of parents felt their child was learning as much as if attending classes in person (figure 27).37 In addition to academic challenges, fewer than 3 in 10 parents felt that their child remained as connected to students and peers as they had been when attending school in person. The shift to online learning has also affected the ability of parents to work (see box 3).
Box 3. Childcare, Learning, and Employment Disruptions
For many parents, family and childcare responsibilities increased due to school closures and disruptions in childcare services. Before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, 41 percent of parents used childcare services outside their home.1 This includes more than 62 percent of parents with a youngest child age 5 and under and 30 percent of parents with a youngest child ages 6 through 12.2
Since the onset of the pandemic, one-fourth of all parents (or 6 in 10 who used childcare services) experienced disruptions to their childcare. Additionally, K–12 school closures have created challenges for parents. Fifty-five percent of all parents (or nearly three-fourths of parents of children enrolled in school) said that their child's classes involved distance learning at the time of the survey (see the "Education" section of this report).
Disruptions to childcare and in-person K–12 schooling contributed to many parents' not working or working less. Twenty-two percent of all parents were either not working (9 percent) or were working less (13 percent) because of disruptions to childcare or in-person K–12 schooling. The 9 percent of parents who were not working due to such disruptions translates into nearly 2 percentage points fewer adults who were working overall.3
Before the pandemic, childcare responsibilities had already prevented many mothers from entering or fully participating in the labor force.4 The pandemic created an acute need for childcare, and mothers were more likely than fathers to forgo employment during the pandemic for childcare-related reasons. Twenty-five percent of mothers said they were not working or were working less because of disruptions to childcare or in-person K–12 schooling, compared with 18 percent of fathers. Moreover, mothers were almost twice as likely as fathers not to be working because of these disruptions (11 percent versus 6 percent).
The ability to work in the face of childcare and K–12 schooling disruptions also varied among mothers by race, marital status, and income (figure A). Black, Hispanic, and single mothers, as well as mothers with low income, were more likely not to be working or to be working less due to the disruption. Thirty-six percent of Black mothers and 30 percent of Hispanic mothers reported not working or working less because of disruptions to childcare or in-person K–12 schooling. In addition, 33 percent of unmarried mothers and nearly a third of mothers with family income less than $50,000 reported not working or working less. These findings are consistent with existing evidence that reducing or offsetting childcare costs has stronger employment effects among these demographic groups.5
1. Parental status is based on whether the respondents lived with their own children under age 18. Childcare services include private daycare, private preschool, or childcare center; public preschool, Head Start, or Early Head Start; grandparents living outside the household; and someone else living outside the household. Return to text
2. Age of child is based on age of household members, not necessarily the respondent's own child. Return to text
3. By comparison, during the Great Recession the employment to population ratio declined by 4.6 percentage points between November 2007 and December 2009. See Evan Cunningham, "Great Recession, Great Recovery? Trends from the Current Population Survey," Monthly Labor Review, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, April 2018, https://doi.org/10.21916/mlr.2018.10. However, for some parents who were not working due to childcare disruptions, this may have been a contributing factor, rather than the only factor in their work decision. Additionally, some parents not working due to childcare disruptions may not have been working prior to the onset of COVID-19 so the disruptions hindered entry into the labor force rather than leading them to stop working. Return to text
4. Taryn W. Morrissey, "Child Care and Parent Labor Force Participation: A Review of the Research Literature," Review of Economics of the Household 15 (2017): 1–24, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11150-016-9331-3. Return to text
5. Morrissey, "Child Care and Parent Labor Force Participation." Return to text
Disruptions to Enrollment in Higher Education
The pandemic and its economic repercussions appear to have affected adults' pursuit of higher education. Twelve percent of adults under age 40 without a bachelor's degree said that they did not enroll in fall 2020 after planning to do so before the start of the pandemic. This includes 12 percent of those with some college, a technical degree, or an associate degree as well as 12 percent of those with a high school degree or less.38
The most common reasons given by adults under age 40 who chose not to enroll in an education program in 2020 after intending to do so were financial barriers (74 percent) and health or safety concerns (63 percent) (table 17). These health and safety concerns likely included concerns about contracting COVID-19. Additionally, 31 percent of those who opted not to attend school reported childcare responsibilities as a reason, which may include those who experienced disruptions to their childcare plans as a result of the pandemic.
Table 17. Reasons for not enrolling in higher education in fall 2020
|Health or safety concerns||63|
|Caring for parents or other family members||20|
Note: Among adults under age 40 who chose not to enroll in an educational program due to the pandemic. Respondents could select multiple answers.
Quality of Online Higher Education
While some postsecondary students chose to continue their studies from home, attending classes completely online, others returned to campus in at least some capacity. Since the onset of the pandemic, nearly 9 in 10 students in higher education took a class online. Part-time students were less likely (83 percent) to have taken classes online.
As was the case for primary and secondary education, college students expressed concern about the quality of online classes. Just 3 in 10 students taking classes online said online learning was worth the cost, citing both academic and social experiences (figure 28).
Although a majority of online students reported having adequate access to the internet and technology to complete their online coursework, only 34 percent reported they were learning just as much as they would have attending in-person classes. This may reflect technology limitations or an inability to mimic hands-on learning online, such as lab experience. An even smaller 17 percent of students taking online classes felt connected to students and peers at their school. Social distancing measures, missed milestones such as graduation, and lack of an in-person residential experience may have contributed to feelings of social isolation and the dissatisfaction with the cost of online learning.
Students' self-assessments of the quality of online higher education varied by their parents' education. First-generation college students taking online classes were more likely to say that they were learning as much as they would taking in-person classes. Thirty-eight percent of first-generation college students taking classes online said that online learning was worth the cost, compared to 23 percent of online students with at least one parent with a bachelor's degree (figure 29).39
Students enrolled at public institutions generally reported similar online learning experiences as those at private not-for-profit institutions, although those enrolled at private not-for-profit institutions were more likely to report having adequate access to the internet and technology to complete coursework (87 percent, compared to 81 percent of all students taking online classes).40 Black and Hispanic online students were less likely to report adequate access to technology (76 percent and 73 percent, respectively).
Overall Value of Higher Education
More than 7 in 10 adults had ever enrolled in an educational degree program beyond high school, and 36 percent had received a bachelor's degree. Economic well-being rises strongly with education, although the effects differed across demographic groups. The pandemic also seems to have particularly affected those without a high school degree—the group already least likely to be doing well financially (see the "Overall Financial Well-Being in 2020" section of this report for details on financial well-being by education).
Consistent with the higher rates of financial well-being among those who have more education, over half of adults who went to college said that the lifetime financial benefits of their higher education exceeded the financial costs. This compares to one in five who said that the costs are higher. The rest saw the benefits as about the same as the costs. These self-assessments of the value of education have changed little over the past five years.
The self-assessed value of higher education, while generally positive, depends on several aspects of a person's educational experience. Most importantly, those who completed their program and received a degree were more likely to see net benefits than non-completers. For example, among those who went to college but did not complete at least an associate degree, fewer than 3 in 10 said the benefits of their education exceeded the cost. This fraction jumps to almost half of those with an associate degree and two-thirds of those with at least a bachelor's degree (table 18).
Table 18. Self assessment of higher education (by education)
|Education||Benefits are greater||Costs and benefits are about the same||Costs are greater|
|Some college or technical degree, not enrolled||26||43||27|
|Bachelor's degree or more||66||17||16|
Note: Among adults who attended college.
The self-assessed value of higher education also differed by race and ethnicity. Among those who completed only some college or a technical or associate degree, there were relatively small differences between White, Black, and Hispanic adults' perceptions of whether the benefits of their educations exceed the costs. However, among those who complete at least a bachelor's degree, a larger gap emerged (figure 30). While 66 percent of all bachelor's degree recipients felt that their education was worth the cost, 57 percent of Black, 62 percent of Hispanic, and 69 percent of White bachelor's degree recipients felt this way. This suggests that self-perceptions of the value of higher education are not equal across racial and ethnic groups.
An additional contributor to differences in how people viewed their education is the type of institution attended.41 Consistent with previous years of the survey, 69 percent of those with bachelor's degrees from public, and 65 percent with bachelor's degrees from private not-for-profit, institutions saw their educational benefits as greater than their costs (figure 31). However, a much smaller 40 percent of those with bachelor's degrees from for-profit institutions felt their education was worth the cost, which is down from 48 percent in 2019. One possible explanation for this decline could be that those with a bachelor's degree from for-profit institutions were more likely to experience a job loss in the 12 months prior (15 percent, compared to 11 percent of all adults).
Look Back on Education Decisions
Another way to assess the value of education is to consider what people would have done differently if given the chance. Most people value the education they have, yet with the benefit of hindsight and life experience, it is also common to think that different educational decisions could have been better.
Among those without a college degree, 71 percent would like to have completed more education, and 12 percent would rather have completed less education in general or not have attended college (table 19). The strong desire for additional education was similarly true among those who felt that the education they received did not pay off.
Table 19. Changes would now make to earlier education decisions (by education)
|Change||Some college or technical degree, not enrolled||Associate degree||Bachelor's degree or more|
|Completed more education||71||65||36|
|Not attended college or less education||12||5||5|
|Chosen a different field of study||40||33||35|
|Attended a different school||33||25||23|
Note: Among adults who attended college. Respondents could select multiple answers.
Likewise, among those who completed an associate degree, the most common desired change (65 percent) was to have completed more education, followed by choosing a different field of study (33 percent). Five percent of those with an associate degree and 5 percent of those with at least a bachelor's degree reported that they would prefer to have had less education.
The reassessment of education decisions also varied by the type of institution attended. Forty-six percent of those who attended a for-profit institution said they would have attended a different school, versus 28 percent of those attending a private not-for-profit institution and 22 percent attending a public institution (figure 32). This difference remains even after accounting for the selectiveness of the institution, level of education completed, the parents' level of education, and demographic characteristics of the student.42
35. Parents of K–12 children are respondents who lived with their own children under age 18 who were enrolled in a public or private K–12 school. Return to text
36. Parents were asked about the type of school that all children attended, but the mode of education only for their youngest child. Results by school type exclude parents who reported that they had children attending both public and private schools, since it was not apparent which child had distance learning. Approximately 2 percent of parents had children in both public and private school. Return to text
37. Respondents to the SHED, which was administered online, could have been more likely to have adequate access to internet and technology than the general population. Return to text
38. Although many people said that they did not enroll after having planned to do so, others who were not originally planning to enroll in school may have enrolled due to the less favorable labor market conditions. For evidence of this pattern in past recessions, see Bridget Terry Long, "The Financial Crisis and College Enrollment: How Have Students and Their Families Responded?" How the Financial Crisis and Great Recession Affected Higher Education, ed. Jeffrey R. Brown and Caroline M. Hoxby (NBER and University of Chicago Press, 2014), 209–33, https://www.nber.org/system/files/chapters/c12862/c12862.pdf. Return to text
39. One potential explanation for the gaps in self-assessed quality of online learning is that the perceived quality of in-person education was higher for students coming from families with higher socioeconomic backgrounds. Return to text
40. The sample size of students currently enrolled at private for-profit institutions was too small to separately examine their experiences with online classes. Return to text
41. Individuals do not self-report the type of institution in the survey. Instead, the institution type is assigned by matching the name and location of the college reported by the individual with data from the Center on Postsecondary Research at the Indiana University School of Education (https://cpr.indiana.edu/). Return to text
42. Selective institutions, as defined by the Carnegie Classification, are those whose first-year students' test scores are in the middle two-fifths of baccalaureate institutions; more selective institutions are in the top one-fifth of baccalaureate institutions. See also "Carnegie Classification of Institutes of Higher Education," web page, http://carnegieclassifications.iu.edu/. The remainder are referred to here as "less selective" institutions. Return to text