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Monday, July 21, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Boomers Look For Stability At School -- Record Numbers Return To Higher Education

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

The last time they went to school, they had long hair and short attention spans, and they managed to completely upset the way colleges and universities taught.

Thirty years later, their hair is short. They pay attention. Yet, they are still changing the way colleges and universities teach.

The baby boomers, who created demographic speed bumps that have reshaped American markets and culture since World War II, are returning at record rates to the campuses they helped to remold in the '60s, this time in search of knowledge instead of enlightenment.

Their return has sparked yet another wave of change at many colleges and universities. Schools are changing their curricula, class schedules and the way they deliver classes to fit the needs of this new, returning crop of students.

Universities and colleges have even renamed the programs patronized by adult students, known traditionally as "continuing education," with new titles such as "lifelong learning," or "outreach programs."

The University of Washington, for example, last year lumped all of its adult- and continuing-education programs into one independent branch, called Educational Outreach. The idea was to improve the planning and monitoring of these programs so that they better serve the needs of the 50,000 students who use them.

In most outreach programs, offerings are based on demand. Many courses are taught at night, or during the summer break, or by mail, Internet or video, for students who work full time, said David Szatmary, associate provost for Educational Outreach at the UW.

Programs like the certificate program are designed jointly by part-time faculty and advisory boards made up of business and industry specialists.

The certificate programs provide credentials in practical fields in nine months to a year, and are popular with working adults.

Take the case of Sheryl Bankston, a 40-year-old recruiter for Keane Corp. She has a bachelor's degree, but wanted to learn how to produce and market software. Last year, she enrolled in the UW's certificate program, and in nine months of night classes, earned a certificate in Software Product Management.

"It was a challenge. . . . I had no personal life, to be sure," Bankston said. But now she says she has the skills to talk intelligently with potential hires. More important, she has a credential to show next time a better job opens within her company.

Local community colleges also have responded to the demand, especially since many adults see them as a cheaper, more accessible alternative to four-year colleges.

Sharon Carpenter, assistant dean of continuing education at Bellevue Community College, said enrollments in continuing education classes have risen dramatically, particularly in computer and business classes. The bulk of those students is between the ages of 34 and 44.

"More of them are people who are learning how to use different tools, rather than retraining for a different job," Carpenter said.

Carpenter said schools have also responded by offering more classes and new ways of teaching them. For example, five years ago, BCC dedicated only two classrooms and four classes a day to computers. Today, computer classes meet 14 times a day in seven classrooms. BCC also started teaching classes through the Internet last year, to serve people who can't come to the campus.

The return of the boomers is a national trend. According to the University Continuing Education Association (UCEA), there was a 235 percent increase in students over 40 years old enrolled in part-time programs at four-year colleges between 1970 and 1993. By comparison, enrollment of people ages 18 to 24 increased by only 35 percent.

A 1995 study by UCEA showed that 40 percent of all adults in the country attended a form of adult education. Seventy-six million adults were in continuing-education classes, with almost 53 percent of them taking classes related to work.

Ed Gehres, executive director of UCEA, said the return of adult professionals to the university has two causes: money and age.

As professionals progress in their careers, many find that they need better technical or business skills to get ahead.

In the age of downsizing corporations, many have lost their jobs to budget cuts and younger, cheaper workers, and need to be trained for a new career.

Others want to become entrepreneurs, and need new skills to be successful.

Adults, unlike younger students, also have come to value further education as a way to fulfill themselves and their goals.

Many want a new direction in life, and hope the university or college can provide it.

"My whole life, I loved film and the cinema and never did anything about it because I thought you had to be special," said Leonard Lowenthal, 48, a student at the UW. "I decided, if not now, when?"

Lowenthal, a self-described middle-ager in midlife crisis, recently completed a one-year certificate program in Film and Video Editing. He plans to produce films, and move away from the temporary-employment business that he manages now.

Much of the momentum behind the demand for better professional training is coming from businesses. James Farricker, chief engineer for Boeing's intranet, said businesses no longer see the university just as a place from which to hire workers, but also as a place to improve the ones they have. Even managers, formerly a safe class of workers, are realizing that they need training to understand the technology they manage every day, said Farricker, who also teaches computer classes at the UW's outreach programs.

Many businesses are contracting with colleges to provide classes for their adult workers, both on and off campus, according to Katherine Riley, assistant dean for continuing education at North Seattle Community College.

"Employers are demanding that people have a learning curve," Riley said. "People are expected to keep learning, and expecting to keep learning."

But the fact that money and prestige motivate students to go on learning doesn't mean that all adult classes are about business or computers. One of the most popular adult classes at North Seattle Community Colleges is tai chi, the ancient Chinese low-impact exercise. Next in line are classes like basic car repair, Riley said. That's just the nature of continuing education: It's about learning the skills that people either need or want to be happy. And that's a process that, increasingly, doesn't end with a degree or with a certain age, according to educators.

"When people think of education nowadays, it's not just for a period of time, but going to school for their entire life," Szatmary said. -----------------------------------------------------------------

Demand rises for continuing education

Enrollment in the University of Washington's continuing education programs is increasing dramatically compared with regular enrollment:

Continuing education enrollment: Enrollment in Certificate Programs is up 129 percent since 1992-93 (Sept.-June)

92-93: 1,440

93-94: 1,625

94-95: 1,819

95-96: 3,293

Enrollment in Evening Degree Programs is up 49 percent: (spring quarter each year)

1993: 389

1994: 411

1995: 494

1996: 580

By camparison, enrollment of regular students at the main Seattle campus are down 6 percent for the same period: (summer quarter enrollments # )

1993: 14,998

1994: 14,243

1995: 14,138

1996: 14,160 (Summer figures are used because enrollment during the regular school year, which also hass been declining, is capped and therefore doesn't accurately reflect student demand.)

--------------------------------------------------------------------- Facts about students at the UW Certificate Program: ---------------------------------------------------------------------

Percent by age:

Under 23: 0.8% .

23-29: 17.2% .

30-44: 55.7% .

45-59: 22.4% .

60 or older: 3.8% .

Gender:

Female: 57.5% .

Male: 42.5% .

Reasons for enrolling

Undergraduate credit: 1% .

Career change: 29% .

Personal interest: 45% .

Professional development: 79% .

Note: Totals more than 100% because respondents selected all tht applied.

Source: University of Washington

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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