Are American universities and colleges on the cusp of enrolling a new student population?
For many people “college” means an educational experience populated by at students aged 18-22. This traditional-age demographic is a popular one for our imagination of higher education, despite the fact that the majority of students are now older than that. We can see this age assumption in news media, or in Andrew Delbanco’s flawed mediation, College (my review).
What if we turn the age assumption on its head, and imagine higher education focused on the over-65 population? This is the argument made by Barbara Vacarr, a former president of Vermont’s Goddard College.
First, a bit of demographic background. The traditional-age focus rests on a classic assumption about what a society looks like by age. That model is usually pyramidal, like this visualization of America 50 years ago:
Lots of kids, a few old folks, and intermediate numbers in between.
Fast forward five decades, and we have a new society shaped by different child-rearing habits, birth control, improved medical care, and more. It looks like this:
Instead of a pyramid we have something closer to a rectangle. The proportion of young people had shrunk, while the senior component – i.e., baby boomers – has grown.
In response, higher ed might be able to shift its focus and garner some new students. Seniors, especially ones in retirement or, if employed, seeking professional growth, might want to take college classes once more (or for the first time). As Vacarr notes,
Here we have the makings of a win-win scenario. Colleges need students, and a growing underserved population needs supportive educational pathways into a new life chapter, precisely what colleges have historically provided.
Can campuses respond? They would have to extend their approach to adult learners a bit further, reviewing curricula, pedagogy, and student life. Campuses with senior initiatives like Over-60 programs can expand them. Administrations will have to balance a wide variety of ages, more than some do already – truly supporting life-long learning. There are many seniors with an interest in learning.
Colleges and universities that do this well might win a generation of extra students.