Can Boomer Students Help Colleges’ Bottom Line?

BY BRIAN C. MITCHELL

In a recent Wall Street Journal article entitled “Baby Boomers Looking for Reinvention Try College — Again,” Douglas Belkin notes that “adult students have been a growing force at universities for more than a decade – mostly blue-collar workers or those pursuing advanced degrees focused on getting new skills.”

Looking at older, retiring adults, Belkin suggests that universities could use the tuition payments and many of these older students pay full freight. In a telling statistic, the article relates that about 10,000 baby boomers are retiring every day.

Tuition from Adult Students Can Help Colleges’ Bottom Lines

Colleges and universities are overwhelmingly dependent on the revenue that they receive from tuition, fees, room and board. Many are not reaching their projected enrollment numbers. Colleges face rising financial aid discount rates, now at 50 percent. The number of full-pay students has dropped precipitously in the past 20 years while the sticker price at high-priced tuition schools approaches $70,000 per annum.

In addition, the demographics for the traditional draw of students within the 18-22 year old cohort are terrible with no significant improvement over the short term. The usual building blocks of admissions – academic-oriented admits, legacies, student athletes, over the transom acceptances, international students, and transfers — have not produced a robust applicant pool. Indeed, the problems creating a seamless pathway for groups like transfers are now considered a national crisis, with a great deal of experimentation going on at the state level.

With the financial outlook so bleak, perhaps it’s time for many colleges and universities to re-imagine who they serve and how they contribute to workforce preparation in America.

There will always be room for the traditional, residential liberal arts college filled with 18-22 year old students. But it’s time for the broad middle market of public and private colleges and universities to think of educating late-stage adult populations beyond graduate and continuing education programs that cater more to traditional workforce development than workforce re-imagination for late-stage career and retiring employees.

adult female and male students in classroom

It’s in this developing grey area of retiring baby boomers where Mr. Belkin’s reporting holds special merit.

Is it possible that aging and higher education can intersect in new, imaginative and extremely practical ways to serve America’s workforce and enhance its productivity?

Why should we lose the talent, entrepreneurialism, and creativity of retiring baby boomers, especially those who seek new professional horizons and carry with them a generation’s worth of valuable work experience?

It makes practical sense for American high education to develop this market for a number of reasons.

Traditional College Model Doesn’t Meet Needs of Older Students

American higher education should be a seamless, continuous pathway that takes account of the full capabilities of its citizens. The current education formula trains broadly in the liberal arts, towards an end goal of employment after graduation, and for early- and mid-stage professional advancement. It does not provide workers in the later stages of their careers with an opportunity to match their professional interests with their life expectancy.

Higher Education Can be Path to Meaningful “Retirement
”

The media is full of images of retiring workers who have planned well to live a life of contented comfort. But what about the millions of retirees who want something different than what a fully funded 401k fund provides – a chance instead to try something new, contribute to their communities, and remain relevant in their field if not at the same job? Is there really only one path to a meaningful retirement?

This failure to account for a lifelong seamless educational pathway to address the full range of retiree interests further exacerbates the issues that arise in a post industrial economy that is moving faster than the educational system that develops its workforce.

That’s not to say that there are not already programs that serve retiring baby boomers. Mr. Belkin cites programs at Harvard and Stanford, for example, to demonstrate the innovative programming already in place. Both programs provide an opportunity for accomplished professionals to take a moment before they try something new, often with potential global implications. Other colleges and universities offer similar platforms. Many more have “learning experience” on-campus and travel options open to most groups, especially alumni.

Colleges Need More Students & Revenue to Survive

But higher education is in a financial crisis driven by its dependence on insufficient revenue from a tuition-driven operational model.

If tuition continues to be the foundation upon which college and most university budgets are built, doesn’t it make sense to find new segments within the enrollment market that can pay the bills and enhance workforce productivity?

There are good and bad examples of the mounting disruption in American higher education. Rethinking who attends college, when they attend, and why they came effectively re-imagines the enrollment market for most colleges and universities. It will make better use of people, programs and facilities. It’s good and necessary disruption that can make higher education more sustainable in the long-term.

Rethinking how to create a life long seamless pathway directly addresses the core mission of American higher education – to serve the common good.

This article first appeared on the blog of the Edvance Foundation.

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