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Ready to Go Back to School?
More importantly, is school ready for you?
“Youth is wasted on the young,” George Bernard Shaw is said to have said, and that goes for higher education too. Who is in a better position to appreciate the wonder of opening the mind to vast new realms of knowledge – you with your years of worldly experience, or still-wet-behind-the-ears youngsters between ages 18 and 22?
That was a rhetorical question. But this one is not: What is stopping you from enrolling today to finish your degree, or earn a second or third one?
Perhaps it is the fear that stepping onto a college campus, at this stage of your life, would make you stand out like a leopard in a pink leotard. Or it could be the near-certainty that you can’t be admitted without producing your high school transcript and a parent’s signature.
Institutions tend to change slowly, and few change more slowly than universities. Lately, though, some have awakened to the reality that millions of what were known as “non-traditional” students comprise a promising market for academics. Adding some urgency to the wakeup call is demographic doom: the pipeline of 18-22-year-olds is slowing to a trickle.
Good news! A handful of universities, in fact, are being pro-active about including an older generation of students. About 60 schools in the U.S. are members of the Age-Friendly University (AFU) Global Network. Two of them are in Maryland, the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) and the University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB).
All it takes to become an AFU is the university leadership’s commitment to the 10 principles of age-friendly universities. These include:
· encouraging older adults to participate in all the core activities of the university,
· promoting personal and career development in the second half of life,
· widening access to online education,
· conducting research informed by the needs of an aging society,
· promoting intergenerational learning, and
· giving older adults access to health and wellness programs and arts and cultural offerings.
Universities are not required to adhere to all 10 principles in practice, however. How they interpret the principles, and how far they go, are decisions left up to each individual university. So an age-friendly practice at one university will not necessarily be followed at others.
“Usually a university begins with a few principles that they know will help focus them on older students,” says Dana Burr Bradley, Dean of the Erickson School of Aging Studies at UMBC and a strong advocate for UMBC’s affiliation with the AFU network. “We picked core activities, the research agenda, and intergenerational learning.”
Changing policies to be more welcoming to older students often means working with multiple departments accustomed to working independently. AFU affiliation gives university leaders a reason “to come together across party lines to say this is important,” says Bradley. “Just for example, one initiative might involve enrollment management, the graduate school, the student senate, and the collective bargaining unit.”
The real goal, she says, is age inclusivity. “It’s getting organizations to think about how they can work actively to include people of all ages.”
(By the way, if your academic interests happen to lean in the direction of gerontology, Bradley is quick to note that UMBC’s Erickson School of Aging Studies is one of only three such schools in the U.S.)
The Pressure Is On
There are other pressures on universities to be age-inclusive. The Great Resignation is not an empty slogan. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has found workers quitting at or near record levels in nearly all sectors, and particularly among low-wage workers. Their unhappiness over poor wages and inconvenient schedules could translate into a surge of students seeking to advance their careers, or change careers, with additional knowledge.
And returning to campus is not the only way to pursue more education. The pandemic forced schools to up their game in online learning, and now there’s a wider variety of offerings if you want to learn remotely. There are also plentiful noncredit opportunities, including the Institute for Learning in Retirement, which offers courses that in some cases are taught by older adults themselves.
A recent poll of adults aged 60 and above found 31% interested in continuing their education, and more than one third of those wanting to earn degrees.
So millions of older adults are ready to continue learning. At least a few universities are ready to welcome them. Bradley suggests that’s a good sign about growing age-inclusiveness in the larger world.
“Colleges and universities are a wonderful vector of change for society,” she says. “AFUs have an opportunity to focus their light on what they are doing to be more age-inclusive. And when you shine a light on something, it’s hard for it to remain invisible.”