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Older Adults Still Offer Promising Outlook for Online Education

Updated on August 21, 2020
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Former university professor of marketing and communications, Sallie is an independent publisher and marketing communications consultant.

What's Age Got to Do with It?

Oh yeah, it's got just what you need. A way to earn a respectable degree at home, on your own turf. Why, you can come home from work, kick back and put your feet up, or put in a load of laundry and get dinner on, and you can still get to class without a breaking a sweat. You can even go to class wearing that hot little number you like to sleep in and no one will mind at all. In fact, most will encourage it. After all, the providers of online/distance education aim to please and will do all they can to to satisfy you, because what they really want is for you to go all the way with them—without leaving the comforts of home.

It’s going to college via online/distance education, and it’s getting older, better, and hotter every day, with age. And if the predictions are correct about older segments of our nation’s population, the country may be poised for even more growth in college enrollment from them. What this means for providers of distance education is many more reasons to reach out to a population that now represents, according to the U. S. Department of Education, only four percent of the 17 million students enrolled in degree-granting colleges and universities nationwide. And what it means to older Americans is that they have more avenues than ever for the pursuit of education, training, or lifelong learning opportunities.

Youth Lovers May Have to Court Older Prospects

The expected shortage of new workers age 16 - 24 in the U. S. by the year 2020, was predicted to cause a need to replace younger college students with older adults. And that means there may be a great need for further education and training of adults who may desire new careers or advancement at existing jobs.Even though, in the academic world, policies and practices still favor “traditional age” students, age 18-21, who are financially dependent, our government’s Occupational Outlook Handbook projected (prior to the 2020 pandemic) that the youth labor force (workers age 16-24) would be decreasing from 13.6 percent in 2010, to 11.2 percent in 2020. With that being the case, it is likely that many educational institutions will need to reach out to older adults to reach desired enrollment targets.

It also means adult students (those older than age 24) will likely continue to be an attractive and fast growing segment in American higher education for many years to come. Many of these adults will be seeking distance education providers as alternatives to traditional schools due to the demands on their time related to work and/or family, or to the needs of a more mobile and more physically active retirement-age population.

What The Numbers Show

Pandemic aside, America was already experiencing a severe shortage of skilled labor, according to the Department of Labor. In January, 2019, the US economy was showing 7.6 million unfilled jobs, yet only 6.5 million people were reported to be looking for a job.

Most American adults, 88 percent, in 2015, were at least high school graduates and more than half, or 59 percent, had completed some college. Thirty-three percent of adults (or 1 out of 3) reported having attained a bachelor’s degree or more education, with 12 percent reporting an advanced degrees, including master’s, professional, or doctorate degrees. The amount of education reported varied, however, when considering age, sex, race/ethnic origin, nativity, and disability status. These numbers, along with the fact that demographic shifts are expected to worsen the gap between qualifications and job demands, explains why there is an expected shortage of qualified workers in our country.

According to the website, for the first time in decades since data has been compiled, more than one-third of the U. S. adult population has a bachelor’s degree or higher. Undergraduate college enrollment has continued to decline, and enrollment of adult learners over the age of 24 has also decreased by more than 1.5 million since spring 2011. Still, the facts show that many millions still need post-secondary credentials to compete for jobs and achieve personal financial stability.

Some researchers are predicting that significant large-scale demographic changes are likely to affect the workplace for many years to come. The changes, along with the increasing tech “readiness” of the population, is providing a basis for predictions of continued growth among many of these population segments for enrollment in online/distance learning. Some of the changes which could exert impact on the continued attractiveness of online/distance education to adult students include:

  1. Women, minorities, and new immigrants are being viewed as a potential “pool” of replacements for younger workers. This could mean employers and prospective employers may have to invest in training, retraining, and education for workers in these groups. Some of the older workers will already have degrees and advanced degrees, while others may want to attend college for the first time.
  2. Older adults desiring credit for what they know. Opportunities exist for companies qualified to evaluate/assess the value of prior learning and other career-related services older adults may need prior to moving into higher education, or to entering or reentering the workforce. These prospects will expect employers to be concerned about creating avenues of access, both formal and informal, to educational and informational channels designed for career and personal growth. This could lead to more employers initiating relationships with providers of distance education.
  3. The need to “personalize” work and life transitions. No one gets a manual about how to age gracefully, resourcefully, or successfully. Therefore, life-planning tools and resources must be in place to educate aging segments of the adult population about issues related to aging and managing life transitions. Distance learning techniques and technology allow easy "customizability" and may offer the ideal “fit” for a variety of different learning needs and styles.
  4. Lifelong Learning. Some will be seeking learning simply for the sake of learning, along with those wanting to satisfy self-centered concerns for career and personal satisfaction. Rewards other than those related to work and/or pay include: Learning as a way to have something to do, and using education/learning as opportunity to meet new people and connect with others.

Still a Trend With Stamina and Endurance

For many years to come, these demographic and workforce changes are expected to open new markets for non-traditional education and non-traditional modes of delivery of educational services. As this occurs, the job market should see an increase in competition for older workers. In addition, employers are expected to seek methods of training and retraining the workers they already have in order to maintain costs while keeping a competitive advantage. Again, distance education offers them a potentially effective and cost efficient way to accomplish this objective. Whether they're being courted by employers or online/distance education providers, for many older Americans, it will be nice to feel desirable and wanted, once again.

You may also want to read the following articles by this author:

Need Training or Skills Development to Get Promoted or Change Jobs?

Is Online or Distance Education Right for You?

Three Major Concerns Cited by Students of Distance Learning

Are Online/Distance Education Schools Destroying Quality Education in America?

© 2012 Sallie B Middlebrook PhD


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