New Higher Ed Programs Expand Options for Non-traditional Students

Facing decreasing enrollments, colleges and universities are broadening their mandates to become lifelong learning centers. While, colleges and universities will continue to focus on students at the beginning of their careers, there is growing interest in helping those make changes after decades in the work force.

The University of Colorado-Denver is launching a program in January 2023 called Change Makers, a semester course designed for people who have just retired from their primary career or are thinking about it.

Colorado has the fourth-fastest growth rate in people over 65, while growth rates for typical college students are quite low, according to published reports. This is a “demographic cliff” for universities with fewer young people entering college. To maintain financial viability, universities need to expand their service model to nontraditional students.

“Universities are looking at who is in our area and who we need to serve,” said Anne Button, Program Director for Change Makers. Program participants will work with a professional coach to explore health and wellness as well as traditional and non-traditional work opportunities.

“The idea is to have a framework for really valuing what you’ve done, the wisdom of your experience and using that to discern what you want to do and figure out how you’re going to go about doing it,” said Button.

An Idea Whose Time Has Come

Harvard Business School pioneered a new model for universities where there would be “a third stage of education to prepare experienced leaders, in the period of their lives once called ‘retirement’ for service activities addressing societal problems.” In 2009, Harvard University launched the Advanced Leadership Initiative. This launch was followed by Stanford University (Distinguished Careers Institute), the University of Notre Dame (Inspired Leadership Initiative), the University of Minnesota (Advance Career Initiative) and the University of Texas (TOWER Fellows Program).

That this kind of education is unlike any previous adult education or even executive education, according to a recent Forbes article. “It’s helping adults move mindfully between life stages: what I call the move from Q2 to Q3, from first adulthood and careers (age 25-50) to second adulthood (age 50-75) and ‘work’ that may have an entirely different set of motivations and goals,” the article states.

Stanford University created their year-long fellowship program for mid-career professionals shortly after Harvard developed theirs. “For most people, myself included, thinking of retirement at 65 seems crazy,” said Katherine Connor, Stanford’s Executive Director. Each participant has an advisor to determine an academic pathway. Other features of the program include memoir writing, community events, and opportunities to work with students in research and service projects.

“This program is not necessarily for career transition or a certification program for skills,” said Connor. Participants have started companies, published books, and begun teaching after an earlier professional career.

Further the Evolllution, reports that midlife career changers are a special breed of adult learners. Many are highly accomplished in their career, but not interested in continuing to move further up in their profession. As adults are living longer, they often don’t want to retire or advance their career but do want to work at something else. Some want change; some want to work with organizations where they can use their professional skills to solve problems. An interesting question for colleges is what tools can they provide these older learners to align their experience with unique and interesting work challenges?

As higher ed institutions confront the reality of traditional student enrollment declines, more of these mid-career recalibration programs will appear. It’s an extension of college charters—by expanding the types of students they serve and shifting to a lifelong learning model. Not only is it to their financial advantage to do this, but it also increases the institution’s impact on their local community.

For more, watch how Stanford’s program highlights becoming a DCI Fellow.