If you are an adult 25 or more years old who never earned college degree, it's highly likely you'll still seek a degree or additional education in the future. Millions of you are doing it now, confounding those who predicted sharp slumps in college enrollments. Despite the shrinking number of high school graduates, the college population keeps increasing.
What's happening? Increasingly, adults who dropped out of college are returning to the campus. Those who went to work, got married or entered the military after high school now want the education they missed, says Carol B. Aslanian, director of the Office of Adult Learning Services at the College Board. It's no longer true that higher education is for 18- to 24-year-old high school graduates from middle-class families.
Most adults learn in order to cope with some transition in their lives, according to experts at the College Board. The return to college may be triggered when you lose your job, move into a new job, or changes in your job require new skills.
Some of these transitions are voluntary, yet circumstances force many adults to learn in order to get a job, keep a job or get a promotion. About half the courses taken by adult students are in four career fields: business, computer science/information services, education and health. Even if an adult student is not working toward a degree, the courses taken will be those with immediate utility in the work place.
If you are a "traditional" college student today, your education will be enriched because you will be sitting in the classroom shoulder to shoulder with adults. Nearly half of all students are over 25. They are serious students with a purpose who shun the usual trappings of college life and leave the classrooms to go home or to their jobs. They're in college to cope with changes in their lives, not for the pleasure of learning.
There are at least 6 million adult degree or credit students now enrolled in America's 3,000 colleges and universities and another 6 million adults taking non-credit courses. More of them are women than men. Business executives and educators alike are concerned that too few of them are black or Hispanic. One of every three Americans will be non-white in another 10 years, and RTC business wants them to be educated and able to handle highly technical jobs.
Will all colleges accept you as a student? Probably not for a degree program at the "elite" colleges if you are over 21. Community colleges (there are 1,200 of them) and most public colleges and universities probably will have no problem, according to Aslanian. In fact, in order to maintain the size of their faculties, most will welcome you -- and even make major efforts to recruit you.
Adult students lead full lives and convenience is an important consideration. The colleges know this and are adapting to adult needs with continuing education programs, summer sessions, off-campus courses, weekend programs, evening divisions, independent study, credit for life experiences and other imaginative programs to reach you, says Natalie Green of the College Board.
How will you finance your return to academic life? Most adult students have incomes, may live at home and are able to pay their way. Others are able to tap the same financial aid sources the colleges make available to recent high school graduates. Yet, an impressive 40 percent, says the College Board, get help from their employers. Some employers pay part of the costs; others may pay everything, not just tuition.
Consider these points made by Aslanian:
* Business and industry spend $6 billion a year on two- and four-year college programs for the education of employees.
* Colleges and universities face increased competition for the traditional-aged and adult students from proprietary schools, non-collegiate providers, the military and the corporate world itself.
* Americans work at 10 different jobs during their lifetimes, each possibly requiring new skills, new knowledge, new attitudes and values. They will enter and reenter higher education continuously throughout their lives.
The educational system will keep absorbing older students. The trend is just beginning, says Aslanian. The need for an educated work force to compete in the world market along with technological, economic and demographic changes in society already are making it imperative.