Each semester in community colleges across Maricopa County, older adults enroll in college classes after decades away from the halls of education—who are they, and why do they return? Some adult learners return to start or finish a degree, but most return for personal enrichment.
One such student, Francis Wiget, enrolled to pursue his creative writing passion at Glendale Community College. Francis is a non-degree seeking student. “Non-degree seeking students,” according to the ASU website, “can take accredited ASU online classes to fulfill prerequisites, bachelor’s degree requirement or continuing education course to develop new skills.” Francis said he has “a B.A. in History, so this was more for fun than otherwise—I will likely keep taking classes for the fun learning.”
The administrators at colleges should want to know why older adults are returning to college and continuing their education. Many adult students return to or start college to finish or earn a degree. Another non-traditional student is Nashika Griffen, who at 40 years old, employed full time and a single mother. She decided that beginning the journey to a degree in Organization Management is the key to her success. For students like Nashika, education isn’t a joy but a necessity. When asked about self-education, she said, “I will be honest, I am not in love with education. I know how important it is, I don’t see myself picking up a book and teaching myself after formal education” ends.
But a more significant number of those returning students are not looking to earn a degree but to learn something specific; once they get the desired knowledge, they move on to another area of study or another life situation they wish to explore. Francis says, “I’m doing it for me and the fun of it,” when asked how continuing his education at this stage in his life differs from how he felt fresh out of high school.
More adults are returning to colleges across the country as the baby boomers reach retirement age. The number of adult learners will increase. According to a report by the National Center for Education Statistics report, the projected “non-traditional” student population, students 25+ years of age, will be 39% of the over 20 million students attending college by 2029. The 35 years old and over student age group is 16% of the projected student total. 11% of the projected 35 years old and over students enroll part-time versus the 5% who enroll as full-time students. However, there are no studies available to answer why older students return when not seeking a degree?
The lure of online classes may be a draw for non-traditional students. Older adult students, especially those who are not seeking a degree, enjoy online courses the offer an alternative to sitting in class and handing in assignments. A report by the American Council on Education, Framing the New Terrain: Older Adults and Higher Education, which studies the “third age” of education, looks at older adults in the 55 to 64 and 65+ age groups and their educational endeavors. The report found that 21% of the adults in the 55 to 64 age group enrolled in “personal interest courses” while 19% of the 65+ age group enrolled in those types of courses. In comparison, only 2% of the adults in the 55 to 64 age group and even less of the 65+ adults attended classes part time seeking to earn a degree.
The Maricopa County Community College system may miss a key component to the trend of older adults returning to college campuses. There are many studies regarding adults over 25 returning to college campuses to earn their degrees. But statics are sketchy for adults over 25 who have earned a college degree and are returning to college. The Maricopa County Community College system should try to determine what makes the “non-traditional” student return to school. A study to discover the reasons for enrolling, like improving job skills, elevating their hobbies to a skillful endeavor, or simply filling hours with learning, can help the MCCC enhance their course offerings for older adults.