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Colleges Are Failing America's Midlife Population

Why do so few offer useful, convenient classes for people 50+?

posted by Richard Eisenberg, February 19, 2015 More by this author

Empty college classroom

Richard Eisenberg is the senior Web editor of the Money & Security and Work & Purpose channels of Next Avenue and Assistant Managing Editor for the site. Follow him on Twitter @richeis315.


Empty college classroom
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Barbara Vacarr, director of the Higher Education Initiative for Encore.org and a former president of Goddard College, raised a compelling question in a Chronicle of Higher Education article she recently wrote: With so many boomers looking for help to transition to a new phase of work, why has there been a deafening silence from the nation’s colleges and universities?
 
Put another way: Why are colleges failing midlifers?
 
Marginal Stepchildren

As Vacarr told me: “There has been a tremendous growth in the adult population on college campuses, but higher ed hasn’t focused on that demo’s needs.” Most colleges, she says, have continuing education programs, “but they’re mostly marginal stepchildren of a higher education system oriented toward youth.”

(MORE: Back to Class for Boomers)
 
Sure, there are exceptions.
 
Some community colleges offer practical courses, certificates and degrees that help people 50+ learn new skills in their field or one they hope to enter, notably through the American Association of Community College’s Plus 50 Initiative. (If President Obama’s free tuition at community colleges proposal becomes law, the cost will come down for some back-to-school students.)
 
A Few Pricey, Elite Programs

Stanford and Harvard have pricey, elite programs for midlife C-suite professionals eager to begin the next chapter of their lives — the new Stanford Distinguished Careers Institute and Harvard’s Advanced Leadership Institute. Stanford’s first class of 25 students (eight brought their partners, too) began orientation in December 2014.
 
And some small for-profit schools, such as Post University in Waterbury, Conn. (classes held in-person and online), focus on older, so-called “nontraditional” students. “Only 25 percent of our students are 18- to 22-year-olds,” says Post’s president, Don Mroz.

(MORE: When Does It Pay to Go Back to School?)
 
Vacarr’s Encore.org, a nonprofit geared to second acts for the greater good, is working with a handful of public and private, two- and four-year colleges to build what it calls EncoreU programs, too.

And, yes, I know there are MOOCs — I've taken two (from Northeastern University and my alma mater, Northwestern University). Most who enroll in MOOCs drop out before the course ends, though.
 
This still leaves out most of higher education. Why?
 
Time to Disrupt Higher Ed

“It reflects the nature of the history of higher education,” says Vacarr. “It was conceptualized as a place for young people to come and to support their transition. We’re now seeing a lot of disruptive innovations in society; my concern is that higher ed isn’t disrupting enough.”
 
(MORE: 5 Reasons to Go Back to College After 50)

Dr. Phil Pizzo, founder of Stanford’s year-long Distinguished Careers Institute program and the former dean of Stanford’s med school, agrees. “Higher education has not yet embraced this new mission,” he says. “I know this will change, but it will take time.”
 
Mroz also thinks higher-ed needs some schooling. “Individuals are realizing they need advanced degrees to move up or change careers and higher ed has been a little slow to catch on to that,” he says. “Many [college administrators] have been wearing blinders for a long time.”
 
He believes that doing more for the 50+ crowd could help some colleges survive. “It will save a lot of organizations who are so focused on 18- to 22-year olds,” Mroz says.
 
Ignoring Real-World Issues

Many schools that do offer classes for part-time, midlife students don’t seem to take real-world considerations into account. As The Atlantic’s Lila Selim has noted: “Most universities, even community colleges, schedule few classes in the evenings,” when older, part-time students could enroll most easily and “administrative offices aren’t open outside of business hours.”
 
What should be done? Vacarr would like to see more attention paid to “serving a population who doesn’t have the time or finances for degree-based programs.”
 
One way to do this, she says: grant more 50+ students college credits for “experience equivalencies” — knowledge areas and skills they’ve picked up over their lives. The University of Southern New Hampshire has been an innovator this way, Vacarr says.
 
Another: “Programming to help people at retirement plan for their transitions and move from where they’ve been in their careers for 30 years and into service, so they can contribute to the social good,” says Vacarr. “Just as with adolescence, we need college to be a place where people can come and reconceptualize their lives.”
 
Democratize the Lofty Programs

Vacarr believes midcareer programs for professionals, such as Stanford’s and Harvard’s, are “wonderful” but need to be “democratized across a range of institutions and adults.” 
 
Pizzo seconds that. “I know the program we put together is an elite program. We selected people who are quite distinguished and who can afford to pay for it [tuition : $60,000],” says Pizzo. “Going forward, this is a model we hope will create the essential ingredients for transforming higher education in this country and globally. Simply succeeding at Stanford would be ok, but insufficient.”
 
Pizzo says he hopes to play a role in exporting the program to other schools and “having a dialogue with university leaders around the country and the world so they will develop programs uniquely suited to their communities.” He’d like to “see real movement in five to 10 years.”
 
An EncoreU Summit

Vacarr’s hoping to get things going too. This spring, she’ll convene an EncoreU summit of senior higher-ed leaders. The goal, she says, is to “articulate benchmarks for what makes an encore, age-friendly institution.”
 
Vacarr sees the makings of a win-win scenario. Her article said: “Colleges need students, and a growing underserved population needs supportive educational pathways into a new life chapter, precisely what colleges have historically provided.”
 
Here’s hoping America’s colleges and universities make the grade — and soon. America’s 50+ population can’t wait much longer.