Changing Aging: Why Colleges Need to Serve People 50+

This Next Avenue Influencer In Aging says it's time higher education evolves

Editor’s note: This article is part of Next Avenue’s 2015 Influencers in Aging project honoring 50 people changing how we age and think about aging. 

If I could change one thing about aging in America, I’d expand higher education to include accessible and relevant pathways for experienced adults to continue to work, learn and develop.

Life experience should be understood by colleges and universities as a source of creativity and intellectual strength, connecting living, learning and legacy.

Here’s why: We can’t afford not to!

What Older Adults Want

Life expectancy is longer than in any previous generation. Consequently, for personal and financial reasons, many older adults now aspire to engage in productive work beyond the traditional age of retirement, often moving into areas that differ from their previous careers.

Most higher ed institutions don’t address the needs of experienced adults. Changing their ways would help schools and students.

For many older Americans, earning supplementary income is a vital support. That means that people will increasingly need convenient, affordable and efficient ways to develop new knowledge and retool their skills and expertise to reenter the labor market in “encore” careers.

Here’s the problem: Most institutions of higher education today don’t address the needs of experienced adult learners. Changing their ways would help the schools and the prospective students.

The Risk Facing Higher Education

It’s no secret that colleges and universities are in trouble, generally speaking. From the closings of small liberal arts schools to the construction frenzies that legendary universities undertake to woo wealthy students, higher education’s public mission — to provide the skills for personal success as well as the values, ideals and civic virtues on which American democracy depends — is at risk of obliteration.

In a difficult irony, institutional resistance to creative change often calcifies in a climate of grave challenge. A few game-changing innovations hold real promise — like this one at Boston College and this one at the University of Wisconsin — but there is still much work to be done.

Last year, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation urged a focus on data, finances, college readiness and innovation as ways to make college education more accessible, particularly to low-income and first-generation students, working adults and students of color.

While investing in those populations is vital, I believe that the Gates group — and many of the nation’s leading institutions — aren’t going far enough.

Retirees: The Solution to Higher Education’s Woes

The focus on “working adults” overlooks the nation’s largest-growing demographic: the legions of healthy, motivated 50+ adults headed out of full-time work over the coming decades.

I believe that a growing, increasingly visible generation of adult learners can be part of the solution to higher education’s woes: Retirees.

Rather than turning to fishing or mah jongg or struggling to stretch their lean retirement savings, people leaving their primary careers today are increasingly seeking second careers, often in roles that serve the public good. They want to earn money, stay vibrant and give back. But to make these transitions, 50+ learners need training and education, including accessible certificates and degrees that value their experience and preserve their savings.

By welcoming this demographic (which will include 72 million people by 2030), colleges and universities will serve society better and could help assure their own survival, too.

It’s time that older students are recognized — no, welcomed! — as an innovative solution to what ails higher ed today.

Strong Interest in Second Careers

Consider the numbers. According to a 2014 survey, more than half of Americans age 50 to 70 are interested in second careers. But fewer than one in three know of institutions that help them transition into new roles.

Even so, many said they’d be ready to enroll in such an institution within a year: This is a powerful cohort of proven-successful learners primed to take advantage of opportunities that don’t yet exist for them.

Happily, things may be changing.

In March 2015, at the EncoreU Summit my Encore.org colleagues and I convened at New York University, nearly two dozen provosts, vice presidents and deans representing a diverse cross-section of the higher ed sector, met to figure it out. This gathering was a first step toward recognizing the over-50 learner as central to the future of higher education.

“The energy, wisdom and experience of those looking for an encore really can make a positive difference in our communities and society at large,” said one dean. “This is about achieving meaningful social impact.”

Next Step for Colleges

A key next step: A pilot project supporting institutions of higher education in crafting benchmarks and processes to help them advance age-friendly initiatives and gather allies in the academic community to foster the design and dissemination of replicable national models.

While this effort breaks new ground in defining what it means to be a 21st-century student, incorporating new student populations is nothing new. Higher ed has responded to pressing demographic trends before — with great success.

“We know how to do this,” one participant at the EncoreU summit said. “We’ve done this with GIs and with women [entering higher education in the 1970s].”

Over the last half-century, the dramatic expansion of access to higher education sprang from the political commitments and deeply held passions of activists, policymakers and leaders of our nation’s colleges and universities. Today, we are those leaders. It is up to us to create the living laboratories for changes that will embrace millions.

By Barbara Vacarr
Director of the Encore Higher Education Initiative at Encore.org, Barbara Vacarr is spearheading a campaign to get America’s colleges and universities to better serve students in midlife or beyond. The former president of Goddard College, she has spent a career developing programs for adult and non-traditional learners. Last March, Vacarr’s initiative convened The EncoreU Summit for Higher Education Leaders to discuss policies, practices and pathways to support the transitions of people who want to continue to work and contribute in meaningful ways.@vacarrbarbara

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