It was while researching my book, The Community College Career Track: How to Achieve the American Dream Without a Mountain of Debt (Wiley & Sons), that I further discovered the many obstacles adult learners face today in getting a degree. It is a lesson that all of us in higher education need to continually be reminded of so that we make the changes and adjustments that this growing but unique demographic requires.
As president of Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana, the nation’s largest singly accredited statewide community college system, I’ve learned that it is essential for us to reach out to adult learners and provide a clear path to a degree or certification. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, adults age 55 and older make up a fifth of the nation’s labor force—the biggest proportion since 1948. Moreover, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported in 2012 that the median period of unemployment for older workers was 10 weeks, compared with nine weeks for job seekers aged 25–54.
I took the opportunity to discuss adult learners with President Obama when I was invited to the White House with nine other college presidents to address college affordability in 2011. The president is very aware that we need a better-educated workforce to compete globally. He is also concerned that college costs are increasing even faster than health-care costs. This trend needs to stop. Our country depends on affordable access to higher education.
During the White House meeting, I noted that some adults have never attended college or find themselves back in the classroom for the first time in more than 20 years. Many of them need to take remedial courses before enrolling in college coursework. These courses can further delay getting a degree. Almost all of these adults need to work while attending classes. Many also have family responsibilities caring for children or elderly parents.
One student I spoke with was up every morning at 2:00 a.m., began work at a medical laboratory at 3:00 a.m., and then started classes for her nursing degree at 9:00 a.m. Her evenings were spent studying, taking online courses, and caring for her two-year-old son. Despite all of these hardships, she felt blessed because she envisions a future where she will be better prepared to provide for her family.
Navigating the maze of financial aid, encountering difficulties enrolling in crowded classes required for a degree, and even something as simple as finding parking on campus or paying for books make the transition to college life even more challenging.
These adult learners have little choice—they need to earn a college degree. Often they are displaced workers joining the ranks of the unemployed because their jobs have been automated or outsourced. Others are stuck in low-paying jobs and can’t afford what middle-class Americans have strived for over decades: their own homes, good health insurance, a college education for their children, and a better life for their families.
As someone who served as the CEO of manufacturing companies prior to joining Ivy Tech, I know firsthand that supporting manufacturers in Indiana is vitally important. We have reached out to local manufacturers and created curricula specifically designed to meet their workforce needs.
Today’s adult learners come mostly from the massive pool of the unemployed or the underemployed and require additional training in order to enter an industry where there are better-paying jobs. To accomplish these objectives, Ivy Tech created the Ivy Institute of Technology.
The Ivy Institute provides accelerated programs in areas where qualified workers are in high demand, such as automotive technology; heating, ventilation, and air conditioning; machine-tool technology; mechatronics; office administration; and welding. All of the institute’s programs were created with industry input to ensure that the most current information is included. Students undertake 40 weeks of coursework and receive national certification. They are then prepared for a new career or can go on to earn an associate of applied science degree at Ivy Tech.
There are unique features to the Ivy Institute program. All courses are technology focused, and certification exams are embedded in the program. Employees have a positive view of this approach, since it demonstrates that graduates are prepared with relevant skills and knowledge.
Adult students in particular appreciate the fact that each program has an accelerated format of four 10-week terms. Getting these students back into the workforce or into a higher paying job as quickly as possible is critically important.
It is also significant that Ivy Tech’s tuition is affordable: Adult learners can often earn certification for as little as $2,700, or a degree for slightly more than $3,000 a year. Many of our courses are offered online, which is an invaluable option for these students struggling to juggle the many demands on their time.
Manufacturers have also made it easier for all students by establishing set requirements and national standards for different careers. So if you want to know how to repair wind turbines, there is a course of study that leads directly to certification that is recognized nationally.
Health care is another sector that desperately needs trained workers. The Ivy Tech Health Industry Institute for Education and Training Services recruits older students for its Community Health Worker program. Graduates provide outreach, assistance, and management skills to improve the overall health outcomes of patients.
Health care will evolve dramatically under the Obama administration’s new insurance initiatives. Our Ivy Tech graduates are trained to help patients or potential patients receive immediate care before they need to be admitted to a hospital or to a long-term health setting. This reduces medical costs and is essential to community health.
Some adult learners see enrolling in college as an opportunity to reinvent themselves. Machinists become chefs and assembly-line workers get nursing degrees. One former automotive worker decided at the age of 60 to get a degree in computer applied design. General Electric was so impressed with his dedication that they hired him.
We are also seeing a trend at Ivy Tech among recent four-year college graduates. Many such baccalaureate holders are desperate for employment, and are enrolling at our community colleges to get an additional degree in order to become, for example, a certified court reporter or an emergency medical technician.
I have also discovered that once an adult learner at Ivy Tech masters time management and good study habits, he or she is often motivated to transfer to a four-year institution and get a bachelor’s degree. My colleagues at these institutions need to make this transition as smooth as possible. This can be accomplished successfully by working with community colleges so that all credit hours are transferable.
Adult learners have neither the time nor the financial resources to surmount arbitrary barriers to becoming a transfer student. They have worked too hard to get to this point in their education to experience a setback.
Four-year institutions should also explore having an office dedicated to helping older students, even if the majority of students enrolled are traditional students. As people live longer, they may have two or three different careers. We need to be prepared for an influx of baby boomers arriving at our doors looking for the credentials necessary for a career change. I know because I am a career-changing baby boomer myself.
Ken Dychtwald, an expert on aging in America, advocates lifelong learning for baby boomers, and advises colleges and universities to “re-orient and turbo-charge our education system” to accomplish this.
As demographic forces continue to shift, older students will become even more the norm rather than the exception at institutions of higher learning. It is our responsibility as educators to ease their way into academic life.
It’s also our responsibility to look past the walls of academia and align ourselves with the world of business in order to truly prepare the workforce of the future: No student should graduate with more than $25,000 of debt and no prospect of employment.
A college education is an investment that must yield the return of a well-paying job. For older students continuing their education, it may be the only hope they have to achieve a better life for themselves and their families. It is our responsibility as educators to provide this pathway to success.
Thomas J. Snyder is the president of Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana, the nation’s largest singly accredited statewide community college system. He is the author of The Community College Career Track: How to Achieve the American Dream Without a Mountain of Debt (Wiley & Sons).