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Education and Baby Boomers

November 2, 2006

About a week ago, the New York Times published a piece titled: “Community Colleges Want You.” The story focused on how retiring Baby Boomers “are expected to flood community colleges for the credentials and training they will need to reposition themselves for second careers.” This correlates well with other stories I’ve heard, both in print and anecdotally, on how higher education is making plans to accommodate this ‘new potential market’ of students. Well-to-do institutions, however, want to provide humanities courses rather than help with second careers. Here are some highlights from the NYT piece:

– “The nation’s 1,200 community colleges see the wave coming. They are scrambling to create new programs to help this older generation choose their second acts, and they are strengthening existing courses to make them more relevant to these students.”
– “During the summer [of 2006] the American Association of Community Colleges, an advocacy group in Washington, joined with AARP to review ways to meet the upcoming need. This need became clear to both groups after a recent AARP mail survey of 30,000 respondents ages 42 and older found that 26 percent who had begun a new career in the last year said they had taken courses toward a college degree or certification in the same period. Retirement-age students are a familiar population in community colleges, which have long been the bastion of work-force retraining and personal enrichment programs. The difference is that while there is still an audience for staples like painting and gardening, the generation heading for retirement today is more interested in staying in the workplace, and willing to go back to school to get the credentials needed to switch careers, or to learn skills to make themselves more useful as volunteers.”
– At [Warren County Community College in New York], retirement-age students make up about 12 percent of total enrollment, an increase of 30 percent from 2003 to 2006, and the number is expected to grow. Nursing is the most popular area of study for this age group. Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, N.C., has set up the Lifetime Learning Institute, dedicated to people seeking a second, or ‘encore,’ career.”


Among a number of thought provoking things here, what caught me first is the split between working-class, and upper and middle-class needs of Baby Boomers. It seems that this will provide another impetus for improving and expanding the services offered by community colleges. The population increases of the last two decades at community colleges are clearly going to continue.

Baby Boomers are also an entirely different student audience, one that requires instructors with a non-standard skill set – at least in terms of teaching technique. Boomers are not passive, docile learners, and will not tolerate boring methodology or being talked down to. No economic class of Boomers will tolerate a run-of-the-mill survey course instructor.

I see this as an opportunity for alternate education organizations, like the Great Books Foundation (GBF), to thrive. They are perfectly set up to deal with mature, adult learners interested in the humanities. The Boomer population seeking community colleges in the above story will not seek out the Foundation, but the rest likely will. Why sign up for expensive adult education classes at a regular university when you can find intellectual stimulation at a low-cost great books reading group? Some Boomers will of course want the expert information that university instructors can provide, but I believe most are not passive enough for those course formats.

Finally, per New York’s Warren County CC, who could’ve predicted that nursing – of all fields – would be a popular retraining area?! Amazing. – TL


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