Mature Workers in a Global Economy: The Importance of Community Colleges
Adults ages 40 and above represent over half of the labor force in the U.S. and that proportion is projected to remain constant through 2028. At the same time, the 55-plus age group is experiencing the fastest growth rate in labor force participation. Participation rates for the 55 to 64 age group are expected to increase from 31% to 39% between 2019 and 2028 while rates for the 65 to 74 age group are expected to increase from 18% to 33% over the same period.
Technological advances in an increasingly global economy require skill upgrades over the entire life course. Over half of adults in the U.S. labor force acknowledge it will be necessary for them to participate in training and develop new skills throughout their working careers in order to keep up with changes in the workplace.
Why Focus on Community Colleges?
The majority of post-traditional (aged 25 to 64) students who enroll in a postsecondary program do so at a community college and enroll on a part-time basis. Community colleges are conveniently located, flexible and affordable. These colleges typically work closely with local employers and are thus able to advise students about jobs in demand and programs that will provide necessary skills for those jobs.
A recent paper by Paul Osterman reported that a survey of employers indicated they want workers with “community college level skills.” In addition to offering for-credit programs that result in a credential, many community colleges offer customized training so employers can upgrade the skills of their workers.
Why Community Colleges Should Care About Age 40-Plus Students
Enrollments at community colleges declined in recent years and the decline is projected to continue, with fewer high school graduates in coming years. As a result of these enrollment trends and an increased emphasis on attainment goals in nearly all states, there has been greater focus on post-traditional age students. Excluding students under age 18, who are typically “dual-enrollees” (high-school students taking college courses), the National Center for Education Statistics reports that adults age 25-plus account for 38% of those enrolled at public two-year institutions and of those, 27% are age 40-plus.
Most research about adult learners lumps ages 25 and older into a single group and does not consider the differences in life stages and goals within this broad age group. To achieve attainment goals and maintain or increase enrollment, community colleges will need to engage the age 40-plus student. We refer to the age 40-plus student as Mid- and Later-Life (MLL) students.
MLLs have diverse educational and work histories with a wide range of educational gap years. They are often juggling multiple roles and responsibilities and are more likely to have health issues than traditional age students. They bring a wealth of life experience to the classroom.
Understanding MLLs Motivations to Return to College
Reasons MLLs return to college include changes in family and work status, fulfilling a long-held dream or ambition, or to reinvent themselves. Their objectives range from dabbling with one course, pursuit of a degree or credential, or to transfer to attain an even higher credential, such as a baccalaureate degree. Not all MLLs want training for a new occupation, some just want to upgrade skills to improve their value to their current employer and reduce their risk of job loss. We recently completed a series of focus groups with MLL community college students and grouped reasons for returning to school as “impelled transitions” and “liberated transitions.” Here are a few of their comments:
Changes in roles and responsibilities can lead to the need to return to the work force:
“I’ve had to take the role of caregiver and provider. So, basically that’s what made me decide to go to school so that I can get a decent job.”
“I, uh, recently found myself unemployed. …My company decided … that they were going to close and consolidate.”
“I have a 30-year-old industrial engineering degree and I worked for seven and a half years … but then when I looked back at …where the field had gone and what was expected of people, I just was way behind the times because I … hadn’t kept up.”
The end of earlier competing obligations can create new opportunities for self-fulfillment:
“I needed to take care of the kids, have the flexibility of hours and all of that, but I knew the minute mine went off to college I was going back.”
“I just stayed home for so long and I feel like this is a new chapter in my life because I did that after so many years and this is my time to do something that I love.”
Layoffs with benefits:
“I got the opportunity to take a buyout at [my company] which I had worked [at for] 21 years. So I took it and I had been wanting to go back to school since my kids were little … and I never had the opportunity.”
Challenges and Barriers Facing MLLs
Student focus groups also revealed challenges and barriers faced by MLLs:
“I have a lot of schooling behind me, but some of that’s over 35 years ago.”
“And now I have to take the math class that I never took back in the day.”
“When I first stepped in the class. I just felt so out of place. You know?”
“I feel like sometimes I’m playing catch up.”
“At first I felt like a fossil, but now I’m starting to feel like, you know… In fact, the one counselor says, ‘Oh, the average age of our students is like 35 or something like that.’ And that made me feel better.”
How Community Colleges Can Facilitate the Success of MLLs
Our research on MLLs enrolled at community colleges revealed several areas where community colleges could better serve this population.
Reframe how colleges think of MLLs by:
- Avoiding age lumping and age capping in strategic planning, program development and institutional research;
- Attend to universal versus age-specific policies and practices;
- Overcome deficit thinking; don’t expect students to change to adapt to available services but offer services to meet the needs of MLLs;
- Understand intersectionality – MLLs can be disadvantaged for multiple reasons, such as age, race and health status; and
- Interpret low MLL enrollment not as low demand but as a missed opportunity.
Reframe college identity:
- College missions are malleable and can be adapted to address the needs of a diverse student body;
- Community colleges are distinctly well positioned to promote and facilitate education and training across the life course; and
- Evaluate overall institutional messaging and marketing so that MLLs see themselves in marketing materials.
Restructure policies and practices to accommodate MLL students:
- Respect diversity of goals in the context of broad pressures to complete a credential;
- Flex and/or expand course and operating hours, since many MLL students work full time and are unable to attend classes or use campus services during traditional working hours;
- Diversify forms of communication;
- Provide digital assessment and supports, since many MLLs lack technological skills required to succeed;
- Support faculty as frontline advisors, as MLLs tend to rely on faculty members to also act as advisors; and
- Include age in diversity training for faculty and staff.
Engaging Mid- and Later-Life students will take a commitment by community college senior administration and buy-in from all levels of community college staff. Engaging MLL students is important to achieving attainment goals, maintaining enrollment and meeting the needs of employers.
Acknowledgement: The research reported here was supported by the Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, through Grant R305A160156 to Miami University. The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not represent views of the Institute or the U.S. Department of Education.
Author Perspective: Analyst