The next wave of prospective students: Retirees?

Expert describes one vision for serving non-traditional students

Colleges should prepare to recruit and serve older Americans to stay relevant during a period of demographic transition, argues Barbara Vacarr in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

America is undergoing a huge demographic shift, argues Vacarr, who is a former president of Goddard College and current director of the Higher Education Initiative at While "today, one in 10 Americans is older than 65," she notes, "in 25 years, more than one in four will be over 65."

Furthermore, a report from Chronicle Research Services predicts that "the adult student market will be the fastest-growing one in higher education for the foreseeable future," indicating that colleges need to embrace aging learners to remain relevant.

For many people, retirement is really the "beginning of a new phase of work," says Vacarr. In many cases, the newly retired will have several decades of active life ahead of them. Ultimately, this makes for a "win-win scenario," she says, because colleges need a new source of students, while aging Americans need "supportive educational pathways into a new life chapter."

A cultural shift required

Colleges have not yet embraced older students. Higher education is very "conservative," Vacarr argues, so institutions have not made nontraditional students a focus of reform efforts, despite a "steady growth in adult students."

Related: Development and fundraising for adult education

Vacarr says the problem is cultural. "We live in a nation where youth is celebrated and aging is associated with decline and thus, almost by definition, is not seen as a market for education, which is designed to prepare students for the future," she writes.

Many colleges are starting to see the possibilities of continuing education and have expanded their programs for non-traditional students in recent years. However, adult education has remained on the fringe of the curriculum, argues Vacarr, who calls the programs "the stepchildren of a higher-education system oriented towards youth."

A path forward

To move forward, Vacarr calls for more research on the educational needs of older Americans, as well as "a willingness to follow where the data lead, without preconceptions."

Research brief: Trends in adult education

In the end, these strategies help colleges remain competitive in a challenging recruiting market. Colleges that fall between elite four-year intuitions and community colleges are particularly vulnerable to the coming demographic changes as their traditional pool of students shrinks.

What might a campus more open to adults look like? Vacarr closes with a vision presented by journalist Gregg Easterbrook writing for The Atlantic: "the university of the future may be one that serves all ages. Colleges will reposition themselves economically as offering just as much to the aging as to the adolescent: courses priced individually for later-life knowledge seekers; lots of campus events of interest to students, parents, and the community as a whole; a pleasant college-town atmosphere to retire near. In decades to come, college professors may address students ranging from age 18 to 80" (Vacarr, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 12/8).

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