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Monday, August 4, 2014

Headed for the Future: A Boomer's Guide to Returning to College

It’s never too late to return to academic life, and the wave of baby boomers flooding college campuses proves it. They are pursuing new and advanced degrees for encore careers, updating professional skills, and indulging their love of learning. Going back to school has never been more exciting. 

At seventy-eight million strong, baby boomers continue to change the world, obliterating the notion that age is a meaningful variable in the decision about going back to college. According to Hunt (2012), “Adults returning to college today make up almost 20 percent of enrollments, which is double what it used to be when they were the young eighteen-year-old demographic.”

Older adults engage in higher education for many reasons. Some go back to fulfill “dreams deferred” and transition into encore careers. Others, who may have lost retirement savings during the recession, go back to update existing skills and maintain employability; and some return to class for mental stimulation, to remain socially engaged, and indulge a love of learning. Regardless of motivation, it is useful for advisors and their clients to discuss both the benefits and challenges of going back in order for this new cohort of college students to fulfill their personal and professional goals.

Hollywood and Beyond
With the motto, Curiosity Never Retires, the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) conducts scholarly courses for individuals ages fifty and older at 117 colleges and universities across the country, with 113,000 members paying annual dues from two to six hundred dollars a year (Hasson 2013). Osher offers a wide variety of classes with topics tasty enough to satisfy any intellectual appetite, from “The Hollywood Novel,” “Current Research Topics in Astronomy,” and “American Environmental History.” Online examples of lifelong learning opportunities without tuition include those provided by the Emeritus Program through Continuing Education at the San Diego Community College District and by the State of Ohio, where “under Ohio law, residents sixty and older can audit classes for free at thirteen public universities and twenty-three community colleges, space permitting, with the professor’s approval.” (Brown 2011.)

While the benefits of lifelong learning have been well documented, a recent study suggests that the well-being of entire communities is based, in part, on the extent to which their older citizens participate in formal and informal learning activities (Merriam and Kee 2014). Further, and with a wider perspective, higher education among older adults impacts the economy and welfare of the national and global community as well, as explained in a Lumina Foundation report (Pusser et al. 2007), “Returning to Learning: Adults' Success in College is Key to America’s Future.” The study notes that fifty-four million adults lack a college degree and thirty-four million have no college experience at all, suggesting insufficient preparation among the nation’s adults to compete in a dynamic global economy.

The New Currency
The urgency for adults to pursue higher education has also been addressed by President Obama, as reported by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in the Adult College Completion Tool Kit (Tolbert 2012) who notes, “Shortly after taking office, President Obama set a bold goal: By 2020, the U.S. will once again have the most highly educated, best-prepared workforce in the world. In order to meet this goal, the President challenged every adult to complete at least one year of postsecondary education. In today’s knowledge economy, education is the new currency. Put simply, we must dramatically increase overall rates of educational attainment to ensure the success of individuals in the workplace and safeguard our country’s prosperity in the global economy. To do this, adult learners across America must enter and succeed in postsecondary education in ever greater numbers.

Researchers Kelly and Strawn (2011) add that the country needs to graduate 10.1 million students between the ages of twenty-five and sixty-four with Associate and Bachelor degrees by 2020 in order to match the best performing countries throughout the world in college attainment.
A major, nationwide program addressing this issue is the Plus 50 Initiative. In 2008, the project started with ten community colleges across the country to encourage creative curricula designed to address the needs of baby boomers to remain “active, healthy and engaged in careers and projects that matter to them” (AACC 2014). Examples of projects from early grants include retraining experienced nurses to mentor new nursing students, training individuals to become seasonal guides at national parks, and providing business education through online classes in tax preparation and medical transcription. 
But this was just the beginning. In 2010, the Plus 50 Completion Initiative was launched for eighteen community colleges throughout the nation to focus on degree and certificate completion for adults over age fifty. The three-year evaluation report released in August 2013 demonstrates the success of the program and the desire of boomers to participate in workforce education. With a goal of serving nine thousand students, instead it enrolled 16,507 participants earning 7,192 professional credentials in the fields of accounting, agriculture, business, health, human services, culinary arts, early childhood education, and many others (Learning for Action 2013). 
The most recent iteration of Plus 50 began in 2012 as the Plus 50 Encore Completion Program. This initiative is designed to help ten thousand baby boomers complete degrees or certificates in the high demand fields of education, health care, and social services (AACC 2014). Training in these areas is intended to provide pathways to employment as well as a means for boomers to give back to their communities and to the world. 
When Life and Learning Collide
But nobody said it would be easy. At age fifty, Erik Amerikaner had held executive positions at companies across the country. But when asked to relocate in China, the vice-president and former CEO opted instead to pursue a teaching credential at Chapman University in San Luis Obispo, California. Today at age sixty-two, he has been teaching information technology for twelve years and has been honored as a Certified Educator by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Although he loved going back to college, he notes, “The hardest part was working full time during the day while going to school at night.”
Although Amerikaner had the tenacity to push through to completion, most do not. Data from the National Center for Educational Statistics show that just slightly more than a quarter (28 percent) of fulltime, and a mere 5 percent of part-time older students go on to finish their college studies (Schepp 2013). In discussing the explanation behind their poor completion rate, Schepp reports findings from the Apollo Research Institute indicating several reasons why adults drop out. Examples include anxiety over college-related expenses, guilt about spending too little time with loved ones, and concern over their ability to succeed.
While the cost of higher education is an understandable stressor, new online tools can help potential students select an educational program that best fits their finances. They include the United States Department of Education College Affordability and Transparency Center (2014), and the College Navigator (2014) produced by the Institute of Educational Sciences of the National Center for Educational Statistics. In addition, potential students need to apply for federal financial aid, as well as the myriad of scholarships available each year. A comprehensive resource addressing the cost of education is 501 Ways for Adults Students to Pay for College, by Tanabe and Tanabe (2013), underscores the value of spending serious time seeking out scholarships that support adults. 
In addressing the guilt stemming from spending less time with family and friends, advisors can help clients learn to clearly communicate their needs by using “I messages.” An example is for the student to replace angry, accusatory statements such as “Don’t make me feel guilty all the time” with “I care about you and I’m sorry that I can’t go to the family picnic on Sunday. But at this time in my life, I’m choosing to attend college and I need to study. This is important to me, and I hope you’ll understand.” 
Finally, potential students need to consider whether colleges that run by semesters, quarters, or rapid-fire, month-long terms will best fit into their lives. Online education with classes that are generally asynchronous and can be accessed any time of the day or night, continue to grow in popularity. Although some believe that online education is less demanding than traditional classes, this is false. Online offerings are obligated to demonstrate the same rigor as their classroom counterparts. However, for online students to be successful, they must be comfortable with technology, exceptionally motivated, and have enough self-discipline to persevere without the commitment of classroom attendance. In her book, The Adult Student: An Insider’s Guide to Going Back to School, Dani Babb, Ph.D. (2012) discusses online learning, including considerations about attending public versus private programs, and an explanation of the issues regarding a college’s accreditation and the potential impact on a student’s career choices.
While college degrees and professional certificates generally result in lower unemployment and better paying jobs, job hunting is rarely easy at any age. However, a wide variety of resources are available to assist older adults in their job search. “New Trends in Retirement Jobs” is a CSA online article providing job seekers and advisors with extensive, practical suggestions for a successful outcome. Lastly, they should visit the websites of their local state employment offices, to inquire about workshops designed specifically for those seeking encore jobs or careers. 
When baby boomer Tamara Sprigel started college, her youngest of four children was twelve. She was going through a divorce and anxious to complete a degree in psychology. “At one point I carried twenty-three units. The toughest part was keeping the family going while I was in school, but I loved college.” She now has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and is a licensed marriage and family therapist. Gail Smith also went back to college after her children were grown. She earned a bachelor’s degree in behavioral psychology, but not for specific career aspirations. Her goal was to feed something deeper—a validation of her ability to succeed. “As a result, I now have an ‘I can’ attitude rather than ‘maybe not me.’” 
To prove it’s never too late, this year, at age sixty-four, Susan Miedzianowski proudly earned her Ph.D. in Human Services and Gerontology. After obtaining a master’s degree on her fortieth birthday, she returned to school to reach the ultimate academic milestone. Now an adjunct professor at multiple universities, she hopes her perseverance will inspire other older adults to pursue their lifelong dreams. 
It is not uncommon among adult learners to express a sense of pleasure about their college experience. Professors enjoy having older adults in class and often observe that they’re among the most engaged. Mary Lange, Supervisor of Programs for Older Adults at Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut, California, and Chair of the California Community of College Educators of Older Adults adds, “As an educator, embracing the fact that older adult learners bring to the classroom a rich background of real-world experiences that add to the academic setting is very empowering for both students and faculty. Therefore, uniting faculty and students to foster knowledge that encourages student participation, mentoring, and personal education goals is a synergistic approach that is beneficial to all generations.”
Accordingly, with support from policy makers and leaders like Lange, along with colleges and universities across the country, the new “senior class” is changing the paradigm of higher education as an institution for young adults. Kanter (2006) recommends the term even higher education to describe the college experience for older adults. She explains, “This isn’t going back to school. It’s using school to move forward.”

Thus, as boomers use college to move forward, they exemplify the concept of “mindfulness,” described by researcher Ellen Langer (2014) as “the process of actively noticing new things. It is the essence of engagement.” CSAs and other professionals who work with older adults can support their clients’ mindful engagement in higher education by:

1. Helping clients define their goals and then locating appropriate educational programs to fulfill those goals. 

2. Exploring all avenues for financial aid.

3. Researching a wide variety of instructional delivery options.

4. Facilitating clients’ use of effective communication skills.

5. Teaching clients simple methods for time management, memorization, note taking and expository writing.

6. Encouraging clients to utilize college and university tutoring services, as well as study groups to solidify academic skills.

With support from advisors, family, and friends, older adults will continue going back to school for both lifelong learning and professional development fully engaged, and headed for the future. •CSA

Karen Gorback earned a Ph.D. in education from the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is currently a commissioner on the Council on Aging for the City of Thousand Oaks, California. She recently published her debut novel titled Freshman Mom, a contemporary story about a divorced mother who goes back to college. Contact her at, or visit her website at 

Headed for the Future: A Boomer's Guide to Returning to College was recently published in the Spring 2014 edition of the CSA Journal.

Blog posting provided by Society of Certified Senior Advisors