Commentary

An Aging America: Higher Education's New Frontier

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

December 08, 2014

As baby boomers flock toward retirement in ever-increasing numbers, industries are gearing up to capitalize on this historic demographic revolution. But for all the attention, one sector has been strangely absent from the conversation: higher education.

This is especially troubling given that, perhaps more than any other sector, higher education will need to rethink itself as the population ages. In 2009 a report from Chronicle Research Services sounded the alarm, warning that the vast majority of traditional four-year private colleges were heading down the path to extinction unless they shifted demographic gears. Along with highlighting the dwindling numbers of affluent white high-school students in most of the country, and the growing number of financially strapped teens from diverse ethnic groups, "The College of 2020: Students" found that "the adult-­education market will be the fastest-growing one in higher education for the foreseeable future."

And yet, five years later, little has changed. Higher education as a whole has yet to focus on this seismic change—including the exponential increase in potential students in their 50s and beyond. By 2030, 112 million Americans will be over 55, up from some 76 million today. In less than 20 years, our country’s demographics will undergo tectonic shifts. Today, one in 10 Americans is older than 65; in 25 years, more than one in four will be over 65.

At a time when traditional "retirement" increasingly marks the beginning of a new phase of work (whether by choice, necessity, or some combination of the two), millions will need help if they are to make a successful transition. Looking toward another two, three, or even four decades of healthy active life, many people are eager to gain new skills and the credentials that will help them move into a new work-life chapter. Like students of traditional college age, they also will need help navigating what is fast being recognized as one of life’s major transitions, akin to adolescence in its significance.

Here we have the makings of a win-win scenario. Colleges need students, and a growing underserved population needs supportive educational pathways into a new life chapter, precisely what colleges have historically provided. So why the deafening silence?

One reason is the traditionally conservative nature of higher education in the United States. Over my 30-year career in higher education, most recently as president of a college focused on adult learners, I have watched a steady growth in adult students, to the point where they are a majority on many campuses. And yet, despite that sea change, the population has remained marginal—all but invisible—in larger conversations about the future of higher education.

To be sure, higher education is not entirely to blame. Campuses reflect the habits and biases of the larger culture. We live in a nation where youth is celebrated and aging is associated with decline and thus, almost by definition, is not seen as a market for education, which is designed to prepare students for the future. According to that outdated construct, older people have nothing to contribute because their working lives are in the rear-view mirror.

And while most colleges now offer programs for adults, whether in the form of continuing education, alumni activities, or customized programs for executives, those offerings have remained for the most part marginal, the stepchildren of a higher-­education system oriented toward youth. (Our collective unwillingness to engage with an aging population is also reflected in the fact that, despite a tight job market for recent graduates, academic programs in gerontology—a field with rapid job growth—struggle to attract students.)

Further complicating the situation is widespread resistance to thinking outside the higher-ed box. In an increasingly competitive market, colleges are spending small fortunes on data and marketing analysis. What’s generally missing is a willingness to follow where the data lead, without preconceptions. What are the key drivers of the market for adult learners? What are their learning needs, interests, and styles? We have yet to answer such questions; indeed, there has been a dearth of comprehensive research on those issues. As a group, colleges will need to remedy this if they hope to remain relevant—and solvent.

Especially vulnerable are the vast majority of institutions that fall somewhere between elites such as Harvard and Stanford (both of which, incidentally, have launched pioneering programs for public-service-­minded adults at midlife and beyond) and the community colleges and for-profit schools already focused on students who lack the time, money, or inclination for a traditional four-year college experience. As the Chronicle Research Services report made clear, such institutions must find new business models or risk going the way of once-­profitable businesses, like Kodak, that foundered when they failed to respond to changing demands.

While we don’t know nearly enough about the needs of older adult learners, we do know that programs that leverage a desire to work for the greater good are uniquely suited to the adult-learner demographic. As we grow older, we tend to be increasingly focused not only on the near future but also on legacy—the hope of improving the world for future generations. That is a natural development, a reflection of the "generativity" that the famed stage theorist Erik Erikson identified as the central developmental task of middle adulthood. It is also reflected in research. Some 4.5 million Americans age 50 to 70—6 percent of the population—are in active second careers today, engaging in purposeful work that contributes to the greater good.

"The university of the future may be one that serves all ages. Colleges will reposition themselves economically as offering just as much to the aging as to the adolescent: courses priced individually for later-life knowledge seekers; lots of campus events of interest to students, parents, and the community as a whole; a pleasant college-town atmosphere to retire near. In decades to come, college professors may address students ranging from age 18 to 80." So writes the journalist Gregg Easterbrook in a recent issue of The Atlantic.

The vision Easterbrook puts forward is the one to which we must aspire in a society where lives are longer and healthier than ever. Change is happening quickly. The clock is ticking. The alternative is not business as usual—it’s obsolescence.

Barbara Vacarr is director of the Higher Education Initiative for Encore.org and a former president of Goddard College