Adults Outpace Traditional Age Students in Pursuing Degrees

Published on Wednesday, February 6th, 2013

There has been a lot of news in the press lately around the price of a college education.  For all of those who are complaining, you are missing the bigger picture.  If this country is to remain competitive globally, we need to be an educated society.  If you think that a college education is not worth the investment, I urge you to speak to the 38 million Americans with some college credits but no degree.  These are the people who are going back to colleges and universities because they have been smacked by the reality of what life is like without one.  These adults have seen firsthand the value of a college education and are outpacing their younger counterparts in their rush to finish their degree.  From the years 2008 to 2015, the estimated growth of students entering college is 11% for students 24 years and younger.  The growth rate for those 25 years and older is 18%.  Where are the news stories covering this segment of the higher education population?

Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce published a recent report that highlighted job growth during and after our current recession by education levels.  The report shows that since January 2010, employment has flat-lined for adults who never attended college.  The jobs lost during the recession and the new employment opportunities created during the initial recovery demonstrate the value of a college degree.  According to the Georgetown report, “even in the recovery, workers with only a high school diploma or less have continued to lose jobs” (p. 6).

There are plenty of news stories of students incurring large amount of debt from student loans and entering low-paying jobs.  However, this is nothing new. When I graduated from college 20 years ago, the stories were exactly the same.  The news reports were all doom and gloom and provided me with no hope of finding a great paying job once I completed my degree.  The market was down and unemployment was up.  Once I graduated from college, I was burdened with student loans that I did not finish paying back until I was in my thirties.  But unlike the hard lessons many others have learned, I felt privileged to attend college and was happy to pay back my loans even though I did not get a great job immediately after graduation.  This was because I had the chance to see the transformative power of a college education first hand by watching my mother.

My mother graduated from college the same year I did.  With her new degree, her pay check improved and so did her life.  New doors of opportunity were opened because of three words: Bachelor’s Degree Required.  My mom was astute enough to realize how education can change a life and went on to receive her MBA from St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, PA.  She literally went from being a secretary, to a manager, to an executive at a large aerospace corporation.  I am not saying the road was easy for her; she attended college when there were no accelerated/adult learning programs.  It was amazing to witness how those degrees changed her life and mine.  Through her example, I knew I wanted to go back to school for my master’s and, eventually, a Ph.D.  And as I have reached each milestone, I have seen my life improve as new opportunities have become available.

In an economy that increasingly demands workers with knowledge and skills, many college dropouts are being left behind.  Adults without a degree quickly realize the value of higher education, which is why 75% of today’s college students are classified as non-traditional students (Aslanian, 2011).  In a 2010 Gallup survey, almost three-quarters of Americans said that having a college degree is very important; in 1978, only 36% of Americans felt that way.  The current recession and a slow-moving recovery have heightened the need to have at least a Bachelor’s degree.

The days of high wages for low-skilled jobs are over, and we need to close the gap between the haves and have-nots.  Education is and always will be the great equalizer.  I see it every day as adult students in my programs receive promotions or move on to find work in their desired professions.  Sometimes this happens while they are still taking courses.  Education equals a better life. Trust me, it’s worth every penny.

Graphic: Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce (2012)