Americans are living longer, and better, than ever before.
Thanks to improved healthcare, longer lifespans, and other demographic and sociological changes, we can expect to remain active and engaged well into our retirement years—and it’s a trend that is only growing. Already there are about 55 million Americans over 65, up from 35 million at the turn of the 21st century. And by 2040, nearly half the U.S. population will be 40 or older. Some 20 percent, almost 80 million people, will be over 65.
Michael Clinton, the longtime media executive and a trustee of Pace University, where I’m president, calls it the New Longevity—a major demographic shift that is creating a new generational cohort and a new market, almost akin to the development of “teenagers” as a distinct population in the middle of the 20th century.
As an educator, I think this is an exciting new opportunity—both for people aging into the New Longevity and for America’s colleges and universities. In fact, I think Michael’s New Longevity is setting the stage for what I call a New Back to School Movement.
The young Boomers, Gen Xers, and Millennials who will be the first to live out the New Longevity are and will be vibrant people—people who will need and want to work, to engage, to take part in society. They’ll need to update their skills and learn new technologies. If they’re still working, they may be ready to pivot to new fields and engage with new things. And if they’re fortunate enough to step back from earning money, they’ll likely want to try out new ideas and explore new concepts or challenge themselves by conquering new languages or digging into old passions. They can also help to fill important staffing gaps—like by training to become teachers working in underserved schools.
America’s colleges and universities must be ready to step in and offer the education these older Americans need.
To be clear, this Back to School moment is far, far from the one envisioned in the 1986 Rodney Dangerfield film. It’s not about successful professionals or recent retirees moving back onto residential campuses redo their undergraduate years, or even, in most cases, about matriculating for full graduate programs like master’s degrees or doctorates (although some number of adult learners have always done that and will continue to do so).
Rather, the higher education community has been re-thinking how we offer our services to adult learners who already have degrees. We offer many certificate programs that enable working professionals to gain new skills and expertise on limited timeframes. And, especially after the pandemic, we’ve become really good at offering these programs in remote and hybrid formats that allow us to meet adult learners where they are and fit coursework into their busy lives. That doesn’t mean we’ve abandoned in-person instruction, either. Some of the most successful kinds of remote learning involve some on-campus experience, whether for hands-on experiences or collaborative projects.
Then there’s a whole other kind of continuing education that’s more about gaining new experiences than gaining new skills. For older Americans who don’t need to work any longer, they’re excited to be able to attend nearby colleges and universities to feed their interests, whether that’s studying literature or algebra or learning to paint or code.
Sometimes these enrichment-type programs are formally structured. At Oberlin College, where I was formerly president, there was a close and longstanding relationship with Kendal at Oberlin, an adult-living community, residents of which participated fully in the life of the college, taking many classes. I’m working to develop a similar relationship at Pace University, between our campus in Westchester County and nearby Kendal on Hudson. But sometimes they’re also more individualized, allowing area residents to take advantage of the many resources at their local college or university via a community outreach or continuing education office.
Colleges and universities have an incentive to make the extra effort, and make the New Back to School Movement work, because as much as this plan will benefit the vast new cohort of potential students, it will also be a big benefit for American higher education—and for the communities and society that count on us.
The number of college-aged students in the United States is projected to drop dramatically starting around 2025. It’s a delayed effect of the Great Recession. When the economy collapsed in 2007, the U.S. birth rate plummeted, and it still hasn’t recovered. And if you’d been born in 2008, you’d be turning 17 in 2025. Starting that year, the pool of potential traditional first-year students is projected to drop by about 15 percent—and that’s before factoring in the additional disruptions caused by the pandemic.
While the name-brand elites will always be fine, that leaves a lot of institutions worried for their futures. These places are longtime anchors of their regions, repositories of vast stores of knowledge, expertise, and pedagogical skill, and proud training grounds and launching pads for generations of local leaders, workers, and productive contributors to their communities. Even before the pandemic, other demographic shifts were already starting to claim exactly those kinds of colleges in the Northeast, a part of the country where population growth has long been slowing and one that is dotted with older, smaller schools.
By taking advantage of this opportunity to widen the aperture of what we do, colleges and universities can provide the benefit of our expertise and skills to a wider audience while at the same time providing the important service of helping our country’s older population to be more productive, more engaged, and more fulfilled in their longer lives. Businesses can help by offering by building partnerships with their local colleges and universities to keep their workers at the top of their games. And all of us, as we get older, will do well to stay engaged by taking advantage of the academic resources so readily available to us.
Yes, this New Back to School Movement will help colleges and universities by providing us a new cohort of students. But it will also be a boon for older Americans, for our communities, and ultimately for our country.
This is adapted from a column I previously published in Michael Clinton’s ROAR Report.
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