Continuing Education: The need for new skills draws older students

Traditionally, college is considered a natural progression after high school, with most undergraduate degrees being earned before a student is 25 years old. More recently, however, the trend has changed, as more adults are starting or returning to school at an advanced age. This phenomenon of continuing education is still relatively new, but there can be no doubt that it is a useful and necessary tool in the professional makeup of today?s work place.

Defining continuing education
There is no single or all-compassing definition for continuing education. As Michele Shinn, executive vice president of the Association for Continuing Higher Education (ACHE), explains, ?Continuing education means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. The big difference is first of all it is for the nontraditional adult learner.? David Levine, director of Continuing Education and Public Programs at the City University of New York?s Graduate Center, concurs. ?Continuing education has a number of different ways that it is described and used. For some it is workforce development, for others it is personal enrichment.? he says.

Tim Sloate, director of research at the University Continuing Education Association, also agrees that a definition is difficult to pin down. ?It covers a wide range of program type. You can?t really give it a specific definition. It can cover everything from noncredit course programs to full degrees.?
There are a few basic principles with which most seem willing to agree.? Continuing education is nontraditional in every way. The students are older, over 24 years old, and can include some who are post-retirement age. Many programs are not degree programs. Instead, these students are often enrolled in programs that will enhance their existing skills, or that will enable them to earn a certificate in a new field.

Popular programs
The reasons why adults choose to continue their education are varied. According to the U.S. Department of Education?s National Center for Education and Statistics, ?85 percent of adult employees who study reported that gaining skills to advance in their current job or future career was an important consideration in their post-secondary education. Eighty-nine percent also reported that personal enrichment was an important factor.? Sloate agrees with the research, ?For people who have a bachelor?s degree and are working in a certain area, there are certificate programs for them in their given profession or field of work to acquire extra expertise.?

Ken Brown, public relations director at New York University?s School of Continuing & Professional Studies (NYU SCPS), points out, ?The economy has changed so that people need to keep updating their skills. People switch jobs and switch careers a lot more.? Adds Levine, ?I think, overall, people within society have recognized the need to keep up with the most current information and knowledge skill sets. There is a larger population of folks living longer and, therefore, there is a desire to do something creative and positive with that time.?

Many professions now require their workers to take a number of courses each year, while some require recertification. Architects in New York State, for example, have to recertify so that they are abreast of the most current building codes. Lawyers, engineers, real estate brokers and health care personnel also require constant training. ?A big focus now is post-baccalaureate certificate programs because a lot of jobs are changing and require additional education…,? says Sloate.

Other fields have proven popular with professionals. Brown points out, ?Anything having to do with international business or international relations is very important now, so our international affairs programs have seen explosive growth. Fund-raising is a fast-growing career and financial planning has been very hot.?

Where to study
Where does one go for continuing education? Programs do not necessarily take place in a college setting. Community centers and even churches have become involved in helping adults improve their marketable skills. Those who recognize the need but are overwhelmed can find free help and guidance through their local Educational Opportunity Center (EOC).

The EOC of the District of Columbia, for example, encourages and prepares adults who want to begin or continue a program of post-secondary education. It obtains funding from the federal government?s TRIO Programs for the education of low-income and disabled Americans and targets low-income students, first-generation college students and students with disabilities, and its assistance entails everything from helping clients obtain a GED to assisting them with paperwork and college choice, spokesman Melvin Brock says.

For those who already have an advanced degree and are seeking to acquire additional skills required for their jobs, most colleges and universities now offer evening and part-time classes. The CUNY system is constantly expanding its continuing education offerings. Courses are offered on weekends or even during the day when professionals are on lunch break. Courses are also offered year-round, so that students are not restricted to the traditional semester setting. Some courses are accelerated so students can complete them in a few weeks or even one weekend. ?We are really trying to reach those folks who had to drop out of school for one reason or another?work, family, just their ability to show up in the classroom,? Levine says.

NYU SCPS also tries to meet the needs of its students. ?We try to be relevant to what is going on so we track what are the new careers and the new skills that people need,? says Brown. ?Our students are demanding that we be creative in our format in terms of how we offer classes. That means, ?I want courses that are offered all day for three days on a weekend or are a mix of online and in person or a certificate I can complete within one semester.? ?

Managing the costs
Unfortunately, funding is severely limited for continuing education students. For the most part, government assistance is only available to students actually pursuing a degree. However, even then there are restrictions, such as income and number of credits, which exclude most nontraditional adult learners since most are working full-time and attending school part-time. Funding is even bleaker for students who are pursuing certificate-bearing programs or just complementing their job skill set. At NYU SCPS, ?If you are noncredit, you pay for yourself or most employers offer some sort of tuition assistance program,? says Brown. Sloate agrees that ?more students are relying on private loans than ever before to finance their education.?

There are a few creative ways to manage the costs of continuing education. While only members are eligible for them, ?[ACHE has] grants and scholarships available,? says Shinn. Levine suggests looking for programs that are funded or underwritten. ?There are some programs where the colleges themselves have raised some funds and gotten some grants in order to offer training programs,? he explains. Michelle Dorsey of the D.C. EOC suggests trying a government agency like the Department of Employment Services, which sometimes helps pay for training. If all else fails, Darrell Jeffries of the D.C. EOC points out that many colleges now offer payment plan options.

There is little doubt that continuing education will continue to grow in years to come (see page 14). It has become easier to take courses as schools develop creative ways to accommodate nontraditional students. As retirees? lifespans lengthen, many are pursuing training after retirement. The job market is constantly changing, so that workers will continue to reeducate themselves.