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A retired businessman attending class at Penn State University

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A significant change is taking place in the makeup of modern society -- an “agequake” in which the segment of the population that includes people 65 and older is growing at a faster rate than any other age group. This astonishing rate of change has imposed a number of strains on social resources. But it has also created some exciting new opportunities for traditional institutions, especially colleges and universities, to introduce bold new programs and projects that respond to the needs and interests of older Americans.

The chance for American higher education to grow in new directions comes at a time when an increasing number of higher education institutions are facing unprecedented challenges in maintaining their historic missions and programs. Insufficient endowments; unsustainable financial structures and habits; demographic reversals (a long-term “baby bust”); competition from new, less expensive providers; and a persistent and growing demand for relatively narrow, career-focused academic programs are all arrows pointed at the heart of many of the nation’s oldest and most respected institutions.

And if those troubling trends were not enough, the 2020-21 pandemic has dramatically exacerbated the plight of the nation’s colleges and universities. In the balance of this decade, it is not unreasonable to expect a substantial number -- as many as 25 to 30 percent -- of currently operating colleges and universities to join the already growing list of permanently closed institutions.

In the face of this continuing and deepening survival crisis, a growing number of colleges and universities are discovering the value of widening the “bandwidth” of their programs and services. The resources of the typical higher education institutions that have traditionally focused on 17- to 26-year-olds could be adapted without much difficulty to the needs of older learners. With the exception of suitable on-campus housing, everything is in place: the inviting campus environment, the instructional facilities, the faculty, the campus activities staff, the food service and last, but far from least, the academic programs.

The rapid development of large lifelong learning programs on American campuses -- essentially commuter programs -- and the remarkable success of organizations such as Road Scholar demonstrate what is possible. It has been suggested that neglecting the opportunities available for serving the burgeoning market of senior learners is like managing an excellent restaurant that is facing financial challenges but insists on hanging a sign in the window saying, “We only serve customers under 30 years old.”

Properly designed, marketed and implemented, the envisioned adaptation of an institution’s mission and programs will generate not only income to support popular services for senior learners but also desperately needed additional revenue to sustain the educational programs for traditional students. Yet to date, with rare exceptions, American colleges and universities have failed to make the most of the growing opportunity to serve senior learners. While lifelong learning programs continue to flourish on an increasing number of campuses, most colleges and universities treat those programs as marginal operations and place them at a considerable distance from the core mission of the institution. As a result, most participants in these programs feel little connection to the wider campus, and college and university leaders continue to overlook the enormous potential for further development of their lifelong learning programs -- innovative possibilities that could generate substantial new means of support for their institutions.

While the motivations and interests of older students are wide and diverse, a closer look reveals two major categories of senior learners. First, there are those whose primary interest is learning for its intrinsic appeal: the fascination of personal growth and the joy of exploring stimulating new fields of study in the company of old and new friends. This is the heart and essence of the enthusiasm found within the nation’s lifelong learning communities.

The second category of senior learners comprises those who have specific learning objectives in mind, often in connection with transitioning to a new career area or avocational pursuit. This group sometimes marches under the banner “Don’t retire … rewire!” They are looking for well-defined programs of study that will equip them to take the next big steps they have in mind -- whether in entrepreneurial activity and business fields or in the nonprofit world of service, from social work and education to health and environmental projects. The work that Marc Freedman has done through his innovative organization addresses the needs and interests of this segment of the senior learner population. The age range of this group trends somewhat lower, typically from the mid-50s to the late 60s.

Colleges and universities can meet the needs of these two broad categories of senior learners and, in the process, enhance their financial health and security. They can respond to the new surge in the number of older Americans who are looking for both exciting new educational opportunities and a wider social network by:

Establishing a retirement community on the campus. That can be a continuous-care facility or one that is designed solely for independent living. Such a retirement community would have at its heart a dynamic lifelong learning program and an exciting extracurricular program, including study/travel, service in the surrounding community, debate, theater, choral and other musical groups, and intramural sports, to name just a few.

Building residential facilities for senior learners who will be on campus for anywhere from two or three weeks to, in some cases, one or two years. Such shorter-stay residential facilities would accommodate the needs of senior learners in both of the categories mentioned above: the lifelong learners and those who are on campus for a program that has been designed to equip them for a new career area or activity that requires academic preparation.

In respect to the latter cohort, colleges should now be giving serious consideration to Freedman’s vision and begin developing short-term programs for older Americans (55-plus) who want to transition to new careers after leaving positions they have held for years, if not decades. In the spirit of Peter Laslett’s classic work on the brave and much expanded new world of retirement, A Fresh Map of Life (Harvard University Press), campuses might also sponsor programs for people in their 50s and early 60s who are beginning to contemplate how they will navigate the next big chapter in their lives.

Exploring creative partnerships and cooperative programs with other colleges. This would open the door to senior learner exchanges and opportunities for the participants in one senior learning program to visit and enjoy short-stay programs at other campuses in the network. This option assumes that the cooperating institutions have also developed suitable residential facilities for senior learners.

The benefits of taking seriously the opportunities for working with senior learners -- and enhancing on a fee-for-service basis the services of the institution -- are not limited to bottom-line revenue results. The senior learner community will, predictably, include retired professionals from many fields, and campuses will be able to benefit, both in their classrooms and administrative offices, from the experience and expertise of seasoned volunteer professionals.

Many financially pressed colleges and universities might, quite understandably, consider the development of suitable residential facilities for senior learners to be a heavy lift. Yet fortunately, there are now opportunities for campuses to establish working partnerships and to find attractively structured investment money for senior residential facilities on campus. Many of the institutions with university-based retirement community projects have turned to retirement community development firms for up-front money and expertise in establishing senior housing facilities on campus. The right institution in the right location can expect to receive a number of attractive proposals from a variety of highly qualified companies in response to a well-framed request for proposal.

Higher education is not, historically, a sector that recognizes and responds rapidly to changed realities and new opportunities. Today, however, the challenges facing the nation’s colleges and universities have reached a level where nothing short of a radical re-envisioning of their missions and programs will suffice. The opportunities presented by the significant and continuing growth of the senior learner market offer embattled institutions fresh possibilities and promising pathways for reinvention and movement toward a sustainable future.

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