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By Paul Bradley  /  
2009 April 19 - 12:00 am

Boom(er) Times At Colleges

The baby boomer generation long has been a welcome constituency at the nation’s community colleges, which have a proud history of leading the way in offering workforce training and personal enrichment programs.

But while an audience for courses like painting, gardening and yoga remains strong, the economic crisis has dramatically changed the equation for boomers and schools alike.

As boomers watch their retirement savings evaporate and the economy sheds millions of jobs, going back to school is becoming an imperative, not a choice. Colleges across the country are now grappling with issues affecting the education of the over-50 crowd as it floods into classrooms.

Baby boomers — generally defined as the generation born between 1946 and 1964 — lately have been getting a harsh dose of reality. The economic downturn  has been especially severe on the older generation. While younger workers have ample time to recover their losses, many older workers are trying to remake themselves, learning new skills and extending their working careers.

Workers older than 55 consistently have had the lowest unemployment rates among all demographic groups. But the rate is creeping upward, according to a report from the Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit think tank. Older workers now account for almost 13 percent of all unemployed workers.

With their low cost and easy accessibility, community colleges have a special responsibility to offer opportunities to baby boomers, said Judy Goggin, vice president of Civic Ventures. The non-profit group provides grants to colleges to develop innovative programs for baby boomers through its Encore Careers initiative.

“This is going to be very important for community colleges,” she said. “We are relying on community colleges to make a big contribution to help people transition into encore careers. This is even truer now because of the major changes in the economy within the last six months.”

Numerous trends are converging to swell he ranks of baby boomers who want to stay in the workforce. One is sheer numbers. Baby boomers now number about 78 million people. In addition, people are living longer, healthier lives. Those who reach age 50 can expect reasonably expect to live for another 30 years. In addition, many older people have no desire to spend their retirements chasing balls on a golf course, kicking back and relaxing.

“This is definitely not the retirement than their parents lived,” she said.

Community colleges have been ahead of the curve in reaching out to baby boomers. When Civic Ventures announced in 2007 that it would give $25,000 grants to 10 community colleges to pay for baby boomer education initiatives, it was stunned to receive 115 applications.

“That told us community colleges were ready and ready to implement,” she said.

The American Association of Community Colleges, meanwhile, is in the midst of its Plus 50 Initiative, a three-year effort to identify those two-year institutions that are creating or expanding campus programs to engage the over-50 population. The initiative is being funded by a $3.2 million grant from the The Atlantic Philanthropies.

A preliminary AACC survey found that 84 percent of community colleges participating have program offerings targeted at students older than 50. Some 86 percent of those colleges reported offering enrichment courses.

Ninety-three percent of the 204 colleges responding to the survey indicated they recognize a demand for this type of programming. 

The findings came as no surprise to AACC President George R. Boggs.

“Community colleges have a long history of reaching out to non-traditional students and structuring programs to meet immediate community needs,” he said. “It’s heartening to see so many colleges throwing a lifeline to plus 50 students coping with a difficult job market during distressing economic times.”

Yet the survey also uncovered some shortcomings. For example, just 58 percent of community colleges offer workforce training and career development courses directly tailored to students over the age of 50, arguably the area of most pressing need.

Only 36 percent of colleges reported that they modified curricula or delivery of courses to meet the needs of older students, who have different needs than younger students. While flexible enrollment options are considered key to reaching baby boomers, just 35 percent of colleges said they have implemented easy registration processes for these non-traditional students.

In the larger picture, more than half of all colleges said their state funding formulas mean fewer resources are available for plus-50 students, who often enroll part-time and in certificate programs.

 “The policies in many states pose a conundrum for community colleges that are seeking to help a baby boomer population that wants short-term workforce training and career development programs,” Boggs said.

“The survey results provide ample recommendations to help community colleges improve their outreach for plus 50 students, but they also demonstrate the challenges facing the plus 50 student movement,” he said.

Colleges are also hampered by limited counseling and support services and poor coordination with outside workforce and human services agencies, according to a 2008 report by the Community College Bridges to Opportunity Initiative, funded by the Ford Foundation.

Forging Ahead

The same report found that many older students have been away from school for decades and are ill-prepared for college-level work, presenting colleges with another challenge.

That was the dilemma facing Kentucky’s Elizabethtown Community and Technical College as it tried to help workers laid off because of the downturn in the automotive industry, said college president Thelma White.

“Many of them have never been to college and are scared to death of coming,” she said. “Many of them have never had to write a resume because they have been working at the plant since graduating from high school.”

The college started a career transition program designed to help laid-off workers land one of the 3,000 new jobs expected to become available at nearby Fort Knox over the next several years.

Other colleges are forging ahead with their own initiatives.

For example:

  • Rio Salado Community College in Arizona has launched a program in partnership with AARP that helps older workers learn the ins and outs of job searching, including lessons on networking, building a resume and interviewing. The college also offers a noncredit basic computer literacy class.

  • Richland Community College in Texas, as part of its Emeritus Program, which serves students older than 50, this summer will offer elderly students a workshop called “Job Search: You’re Not Old, You’re Experienced,” as well as courses on how to pursue a second career or start their own business.

  • Central Piedmont Community College in North Carolina in 2005 launched the Lifetime Learning Institute, which targets college-educated people who have been working for three or four decades and are ready for a career change; college-educated people who have lost jobs and need retraining; people with little or no college education who need retraining; and individuals pursuing personal interests while still working or in retirement.

“Innovative colleges succeeded with boomers not by implementing a cookie-cutter approach, but by focusing directly on the specific needs of local employers and experienced students,” said Goggin, the Civic Ventures vice-president.

She added that community colleges with the most successful approaches offered greater flexibility in scheduling, convenient locations as well as online options, fast-track programs, streamlined procedures, adequate support services, peer mentoring and networking opportunities, and direct access to employers.

Demands on Increase

Civic Ventures recently announced that it is preparing a second round to grants.

Eight $25,000 Community College Encore Career grants will be distributed.

A June 2008 survey commissioned by Civic Ventures revealed that more than 5 million people ages 44 to 60 have already begun encore careers, and tens of millions more want such work.

The educational demands for the over-50 will only increase.

The number of Americans age 55 and older will almost double between now and 2030 – from 60 million today to 107.6 million as the baby boomers reach retirement age, according to census figures. 

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