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Aging students look for career edge

Older, working students are a growing force

Elizabeth Alexander, 51, from Plymouth, leads a group of incoming students around Cape Cod Community College's campus during student orientation in West Barnstable. Alexander is returning for her third semester after working in sales and marketing. Elizabeth Alexander, 51, from Plymouth, leads a group of incoming students around Cape Cod Community College's campus during student orientation in West Barnstable. Alexander is returning for her third semester after working in sales and marketing. (Vincent DeWitt/Globe Photo)
By Maggie Jackson
Globe Correspondent / September 13, 2009

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By her late 40s, Elizabeth Alexander had worked as a waitress, auctioneer, social worker, and saleswoman. But she had a lingering ambition: a college degree. So when her most recent stint as a contract corporate trainer dried up last year, she embarked on one of her most challenging career twists - returning to school.

At first, it was daunting, from writing papers to juggling her home life with studies at Cape Cod Community College. But three semesters into her return, the single mother of a grown son is an honors student and campus leader who plans to pursue a bachelor’s degree in nonprofit administration after graduating in 2011.

Returning to school in midcareer was once exotic. When I got a graduate degree at 30, I was far older than most of my peers. But mature students are the wave of the future. By 2007, more than a third of people studying for an associate’s or higher degrees were 25 and older. By 2017, the ranks of these older students are expected to grow 20 percent, according to the US Department of Education.

“Any way you look at it, the college student population is older than a generation ago,’’ says Terry Hartle, a senior vice president at the American Council on Education, a Washington-based trade group representing leaders of 1,800 colleges and universities.

Why? For starters, we’re living longer, and that’s stretching our ideas of how careers are shaped. Retirees and stay-at-home moms sequence in and out of the labor force, 50-somethings think of themselves as midcareer, and all level of schools have evolved to attract older or working students. Beginning this semester, Bunker Hill Community College is offering two midnight classes, in psychology and writing, geared to students who work late hours and have families.

Recessions also inspire people to hit the books to “invest in themselves,’’ says Hartle. It’s too early to track the overall effect of the current slowdown, but some local schools, including Bunker Hill and Cape Cod community colleges, are seeing older students enrolling to bolster their currency in the slower economy.

Students “are looking at more options because of their economic situation,’’ says Susan Miller, a dean at the Cape Cod school. Some may be retired but need to work again. Others may have been downsized and are trying to switch careers or boost skills.

For some people, such as 51-year-old Diane Boulanger Prescott, the decision is driven by personal changes. When she and her husband adopted a child with special needs from Russia, Prescott knew she would need to give up her six-figure job in Boston and the long, daily commute to spend time at home with her third child. She now takes classes nearby in the education program at Merrimack College in Andover, from 4 to 6:30 p.m. and 7:30 to 10 p.m., so she can make it home to Haverhill to make dinner between lectures.

“When you can hop in the car and be there in 10 minutes, it makes all the difference in the world,’’ she said.

Universities say there are a number of students who, like Prescott, have already had careers, but are returning to the classroom. At Clark University’s College of Professional and Continuing Education in Worcester, enrollment jumped 24 percent in spring 2008 from a year earlier, then rose again this past spring, upticks that assistant dean Max Hess attributes in large part to layoffs and shrinking career prospects. Half of his students are now working-age adults, and the school’s largest program is the master’s in public administration - the ticket to a career in the seemingly stable nonprofit or public sectors.

Christine Mullaney, a longtime administrative assistant from Holden, chose to enroll part time in Clark’s MPA program a year ago to expand her career options. “I am at the halfway point in my career, and I’d like to increase what I can do,’’ says Mullaney, who is married to a university library assistant. She is now temping as a security firm dispatcher after being downsized from her job last year.

When she told Hess that the common thread of her career has been “community involvement,’’ he suggested that she start with a course in nonprofit management, recalls Mullaney, who is taking one class at a time. “You have to find a way to make it work - sticking my toe in the water is good for me right now,’’ she said.

Advising is required for continuing education students at Clark, and much time is spent on choosing the first class. “We walk them through it,’’ says Hess. “They’re afraid of going back to school.’’ Writing tutors and math specialists are available, and accounting teachers are chosen with special care, since fear of math is particularly common among older students.

Adding to the challenges for older students, they don’t typically have as much time as their younger counterparts to figure out what they want to do, said Michael E. McGrath, author of “Decide Better! For College.’’

“The decisions older students make are much more critical than the decisions a high school senior has to make,’’ he said. “Older students don’t have as many second chances - they have to get it right as they may not have the five, six, or seven years to bounce around that someone in their early 20s may have.’’

Other stress points during the transition stem from family issues, rusty study habits, and isolation. Kids and spouses may not like a student’s extended absences from home. Many students have forgotten how to write a paper, much less tackle algebra. They may not know how to get support or make new friends, since they often aren’t on campus full time.

For Elizabeth Alexander, getting a work-study job at Cape Cod Community College’s foundation broke the ice. Suddenly, she was fund-raising, drawing on her past life skills, and meeting fellow students. “Now, I’m one of the gang, I know where to go for help,’’ says Alexander, who is launching a support group for returning students with the help of Jacquie Scarbrough, an adviser for older students.

Scarbrough is the campus adviser for the “Plus50’’ program, a three-year initiative currently being offered or developed on 26 two-year campuses across the country to help older students. Launched last year, the program is managed by the American Association of Community Colleges, with funding from the Atlantic Philanthropies (plus50.aacc.nche.edu/).

“I see dramatic changes in them,’’ says Scarbrough of her advisees. “Coming in confused and overwhelmed and, over time, feeling confident and like they know what they’re going to do.’’ Once they get going, “they are so motivated. They are off the charts. They don’t have the frivolity of youth.’’

Globe Correspondent Dave Copeland contributed to this report. Maggie Jackson is the author of “Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age.’’ She can be reached at www.maggie-jackson.com.