Utah higher education leaders reveal new data on barriers for adult learners returning to workforce

Western Governors University, Utah System of Higher Education highlight Cicero polling at SL Chamber Workforce Summit

Western Governors University (WGU) unveiled new research on adult learners in Utah at the Salt Lake Chamber’s Workforce Summit: Removing Barriers and Building Skills Together Thursday morning.

On behalf of Western Governors University, Cicero Group conducted research to understand the needs, perceptions, and obstacles of prospective non-traditional students in Utah. In partnership with the Utah System of Higher Education (USHE), this research focused on many key elements, including the structural barriers students face in starting or returning to complete their degree or certificate. Survey participants were separated into segments based on age, education, minority, and socioeconomic status (SES).

“There will be disruptions to the workforce moving forward, and we have to be able upskill and reskill more quickly with the skills that are in demand at that time,” said Wesley Smith, Senior Vice President Policy and Government Affairs, WGU. “I think we can all agree planning for disruption and anti-fragility is going to be something that great workforce policy will have to revolve around.”

An estimated 370,000+ Utahns have some college but no degree, comprising a critical segment that needs to upskill to advance in their careers and support the state’s evolving workforce needs. WGU formally partnered with the State of Utah during the 2021 legislative session (SCR 4)—as the nation’s leading nonprofit online university with headquarters is Salt Lake City—and is committed to being part of Utah’s solution to the evolving workforce.

Key Findings:

  • ~60% of Utahns think education cost will be less than $20,000, yet cost is still primary barrier
  • 65% of older adults (ages 50+), compared to 38% of young adults (ages 25-34), believe the cost will be under $20,000
  • English as a non-primary language impacts 15% of minority Utahns
    • For 7% of minority individuals, it is the top barrier
  • 72% of minority individuals listed navigating the financial aid process as a primary barrier in pursuing their program
  • Utahns in the middle-low SES subsection had the highest proportion of respondents who believed the cost of their program would be greater than $50,000
  • Lower SES groups know less where to begin their journey (36%) compared to the upper SES groups (5%)

“WGU has a great model, I applaud them for their model. It’s competency-based, students can get in and get out, and be able to compete,” USHE Commissioner David S. Woolstenhulme said in his keynote remarks at the summit. “We want to make sure our system of higher education is doing more of that as we move forward—being flexible with schedules and how these students are able to come back and get credentialed.”

WGU and USHE were key advocates for the Adult Learners Grant Program, which was established by the Utah State Legislature this year to provide financial support to adult Utahns who pursue postsecondary credentials and degrees through eligible online programs. WGU pledged $1 million in scholarships to support the program. With an average student age of 34 in Utah, and with 75 percent of students employed—mostly full-time—WGU is uniquely equipped to support the state as it seeks to reskill and upskill adult learners.

Resource links:

Key highlights from today’s event:

Future of Workforce Infrastructure

“From the WGU perspective, we have a 30,000-foot view. We were founded by states for states to meet workforce problems in states. We’re very attuned to what the labor market needs and that’s what we do.

On a granular level, we also want to make sure our graduates are coming out with the most cutting edge and most in-demand skills in those fields.”

– Alana Dunagan, WGU Director Higher Education & Workforce Policy

Digital Divide

“We have seen the tremendous power of online learning to unlock opportunity for people who never could have found it in a traditional institution because they’re working a graveyard or are taking care of kids or elderly parents. The digital world has allowed people to be wherever, whenever.

We’re not done when we get everyone wired because there is still this question: how do we make it so that everyone cannot just access but also compete in an economy that is increasingly focused on digital skills.”                   

– Alana Dunagan, WGU Director Higher Education & Workforce Policy