As economy lags, colleges west of Boston offer mid-career adults a boost

At an adult ESL class at Framingham State University, teacher Vanessa Desani assists a student, the Rev. Celso Lima.
At an adult ESL class at Framingham State University, teacher Vanessa Desani assists a student, the Rev. Celso Lima. Michele McDonald for the Boston Globe

With the economy continuing to grow at a sluggish pace, area colleges are offering new programs across the academic spectrum for midcareer adults looking to burnish their resumes with added skills or degrees.

Framingham State University will offer evening classes in Marlborough for the first time this fall, and Bentley University in Waltham is rolling out a new 11-month MBA program. Meanwhile, Mount Ida College in Newton recently added online programs for students with associate’s degrees in some fields to earn enough credits for a bachelor’s degree.

“You get a lot of people who have lost their job, and they want to train for a position where there’s a lot of jobs,” said Maureen Moriarty, Mount Ida’s vice president for enrollment management.

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Moriarty said students have been particularly attracted to programs that open up opportunities in a specific field, like the school’s funeral services, dental hygiene, and veterinary technician programs.

“If I’m going to spend $30,000, I want to make sure I’m going to get a job . . . that makes it worth that expenditure,” Moriarty said.

Moriarty said the funeral services program has twice as many students signed up as expected. “I think a lot of people see the funeral services as sort of recession proof,” she said. “As the baby boomers age, there’s more demand.”

Programs geared toward adults are serving a growing sector of the education market. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, college enrollment by students 25 and older increased at a higher rate between 2000 and 2009 than enrollment by students under 25, and that trend is expected to continue.

“The nontraditional student is now the neotraditional student, if you will,” said Monnica Chan, director of policy and research for the New England Board of Higher Education.

Roy Wiggins, dean of the business department at Bentley, said the university’s new 11-month master of business administration program is geared toward people who have been in the business world for five to seven years, and may not be willing or able to take more than a year away from their families and companies.

“Asking them to step out of their lives for two years is really, really tough,” Wiggins said.

While the 11-month program requires a full-time commitment, Bentley’s existing master’s degree programs with evening classes — including accounting, finance, and information technology — are often attended by working professionals, Wiggins said.

“These are typically folks that are working, looking to get a leg up on moving up the corporate ladder,” Wiggins said.

Framingham State will offer classes for the first time this fall on the campus of Assabet Valley Regional Technical High School in Marlborough. Classes in Spanish, writing, world history, and race and ethnic relations will be offered on an evening schedule. Credits go toward a bachelor’s degree.

“An adult has family responsibilities, working during the day. . .  We envision this program for that type of nontraditional student,” said university spokesman Dan Magazu.

Meanwhile, the down economy has motivated some workers to sharpen their English-language skills at Framingham State, said Rebecca Hawk,director of community education and English language programs.

“I think the competition becomes a lot tougher,” Hawk said. “So people realize they can’t get by with minimal language skills. They really need to build their language skills, and they need to be articulate and conversant.”

Robert Hansen, chief executive of the University Professional & Continuing Education Association, said adult learners are experiencing a “golden age.”

“Until recently, many universities were largely organized around the first-time, full-time student. The programs are more theory-based than practice-based,” Hansen said. “There’s been kind of an inversion.”

Dean College in Franklin began in the last few years offering courses at the Franklin campus of data storage company EMC Corp. Employees at EMC take classes in a cohort, and work toward associate’s and bachelor’s degrees. Each semester, students can take up to one regular course and two accelerated courses, meaning students can finish three classes in a semester while only attending class two nights a week.

Carol Connolly, director of operations for Dean’s School of Professional and Continuing Studies, said the college is “still very much in demand” despite growing concerns over costs.

“When I meet with students who are trying to come back to earn an associate’s degree or go on to a bachelor’s degree, most often I hear them say, ‘I need this degree because my employer wants me to have it, I can’t move on without it,’” Connolly said.

Grant Gosselin, vice president for enrollment and dean of admissions at Babson College in Wellesley, said enrollment at its graduate business programs have more or less held steady over the past few years, but that the down economy may influence which programs students choose.

“Either professionals don’t want to take time off, and they look at part-time programs, or professionals who find themselves out of work might be interested in full-time programs,” Gosselin said.

In addition to its part-time evening programs and full-time programs, Babson offers an accelerated, 21-month master of business administration program that features a blend of in-person and online learning.

At Massachusetts Bay Community College — which has campuses in Wellesley Hills, Framingham, and Ashland — midcareer adults returning to the classroom is par for the course, said spokesman Jeremy Solomon. Like most community colleges, MassBay caters to students seeking convenient and inexpensive educational options close to home, Solomon said.

“A lot of our students have spent time in the workforce and are now returning for educational opportunities here,” Solomon said. “That includes taking a class or two, or pursuing a certificate, or pursuing their associate’s degree. We see a wide array of students here who are returning to school from the workforce.”

Solomon dismissed studies that show low completion rates for students who enter community colleges, noting that those numbers penalize community colleges for students who transfer their credits to four-year colleges without first completing a course of study at the community college.

“To us, that’s a success story,” Solomon said of transfer students. “Many students who come here never intend to complete a program.”

Solomon said MassBay constantly reevaluates its course offerings and strives to offer programs that will give students the skills to be successful in thriving industries in the region. A lot of the industries that are experiencing growth are between Route 128 and Interstate 495, “which is right where we are,” Solomon said. “We have a lot of opportunities to link our offerings to what we’re seeing from business and industry in the region.”

Wellesley College has long had an alternative admissions program for nontraditional students. Susan Cohen, director of the program, said most students pursue a liberal arts education at Wellesley for personal growth, but a desire for career advancement can also be a motivator for returning to school.

“Many people are finding that not having an undergraduate degree is getting in the way of their career advancement or their work,” Cohen said.

Moriarty, the Mount Ida vice president, said that despite some people questioning its worth relative to its cost, a college education is still a good investment.

“You hear that over and over again, is a college degree still worth it,” Moriarty said. “In the short run, it’s not an easy answer. But in the long run, no one can take it away from you. While it might not make a difference today, 10 years from now you’ll be very happy you have the degree.”

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