Older College Students: An Urgent Reality

Older College Students: An Urgent Reality

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Consider these compelling statistics about the age of today’s college students: Of 17.6 million undergraduates, only 15 percent attend four-year schools and live on campus. Thirty-seven percent are enrolled part-time, while 25 percent of them are over the age of 30. This new older student population is only going to get older. With 78 million baby boomers hitting traditional retirement age, many are returning to school to gain the skills to begin “an encore career.” 

It’s time for the nation’s community colleges and universities to start paying attention. Two changes are in order.

First, community colleges need to reevaluate their priorities. Obama’s recent jobs speech called for $5 billion to go to improving community college infrastructure. Not surprisingly, this proposal aroused much fanfare with community college advocates. But we don’t need new gyms and flashier buildings. We need institutions to provide programs that fit the needs, wants, and desires of aging populations. As one study shows, colleges are not prepared to serve the rising influx of older students. 

Second, the structure of schools needs to change. The traditional semester system assumes that students only juggle school with extracurricular activities and trips back home to do laundry. Yet  traditional scheduling is a tremendous burden for “non-traditional” students, and it prevents many from attending or staying enrolled.

In this struggling economy, educational reform for older students might seem a mere distraction. But aging populations will play a decisive role in both our near- and long-term economic success.  Presidential hopefuls are currently clashing over ways to fix the stubbornly high unemployment rate. Yet that number (still over 9 percent) will seem miniscule if we can’t create programs that will enable older people to find productive work in their later years. Turning this segment of the population into an economically productive and wealth-creating group of Americans is also essential to the nation’s competitiveness.

This is especially true if you consider the traditional model, in which those aged 55 to 80 are presumed inactive and/or dependent.  Given the exploding size of this population today – both as an absolute amount of citizens and a percentage of the overall population, in view of low fertility rates – this old model simply is not fiscally sustainable.

As America addresses its aging population issue, often under the banner of entitlement reform – Medicare and Social Security – it’s critical that we also connect aging and education, and keep those topics connected. We simply can’t ignore the demographic reality that there are more adults over 60 than there are children under 15. 

Executive director of the Global Coalition on Aging, Michael W. Hodin, Ph.D., is also managing partner at High Lantern Group and a fellow at Oxford University's Harris Manchester College.