Hitting the books at any age

Think of higher education in the US, and probably a 19-year-old on a college campus with a football team comes to mind. But that is not the typical student of higher learning in America. Far more numerous, and growing quickly, is the "adult-ed" crowd.

Nearly half of Americans ages 25 and older – 92 million people – take part in some form of continuing education. They may be mothers or grandfathers, white-collar professionals or soldiers. They may study online or attend college summer sessions. Some just want to learn how to paint a Maine coastal scene, but the majority are enrolled in work-related training, and many are earning degrees.

No matter who they are, though, their openness to lifelong learning shows that individuals have a great capacity to adapt, learn, and contribute – at any age. Adult ed reflects an American belief in reinventing one's self through education, and it contributes to the country's competitiveness.

Continuing education is also a growing business. One hot niche market – people over 50 – is now a $6 billion business, up from $4 billion only two years ago. Seniors have more choices than ever when it comes to lectures or workshops. They can enroll at a local university or simply attend a day-long seminar taught by Ivy League professors. Retirees see lifelong learning as a way to stay mentally active, make new friends, and get to those subjects they never had time for.

Adult education is also a significant moneymaker for universities and colleges, with average profit margins of about 20 percent, according to Eduventures, an education research firm in Boston. These institutions save on overhead by using their "day time" faculty and they don't have to grant financial aid to adult students, many of whom receive education grants from their employers.

If it's growth a university or college seeks, it has to be looking at continuing ed. Overall enrollment at these institutions is increasing by only 2 to 3 percent annually, but the adult learning segment is growing by 8 percent. Online learning, which is mostly adult ed, is growing at 20 percent.

Demographics and America's transition to an information economy drove adult ed during the past 30 years, but online teaching has really opened up the market. It can accommodate families, work schedules, and relocation (think of the military).

Flexibility is a key factor for adult learners, and smart colleges and universities trying to attract them have learned that these students expect their schools to work with them, or they won't return.

While some colleges and universities still view adult ed as a stepchild, others have become quite entrepreneurial. They mail textbooks to their working students' homes, offer courses in manageable, six-week morsels, or compress a two-year program into one intensive year.

With the growth in adult ed offerings, consumers need to choose carefully. Quality can be an issue, and whether learning for fun or career enhancement, it's worth talking with students already in a program, as well as with the program director. Also consider the impact part-time school will have on family life.

In the US, the nontraditional student is now the traditional student.

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