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How will colleges respond to the aging of student populations?

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. Today, one in 10 Americans is older than 65; in 25 years, more than one in four will be over 65.

Colleges need students, and a growing underserved population needs supportive educational pathways into a new life chapter, precisely what colleges have historically provided.  One reason is the traditionally conservative nature of higher education in the United States and its reluctance to change. To be sure, higher education is not entirely to blame. 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 According to that outdated construct, older people have nothing to contribute because their working lives are in the rear-view mirror.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.

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.

“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.

Source: An Aging America: Higher Education’s New Frontier, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Author: Barbara Vacarr

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