John LaBrie, the dean of Northeastern University’s College of Professional Studies, sees more working adults returning to the classroom to gain new skills and build on old ones. Globe correspondent Jack Newsham recently spoke with LaBrie in his office on Christian Science Plaza about surging interest in continuing education and his own experience as an adult student.
1Raised in a blue-collar French-Canadian community in northern Maine, LaBrie was the first in his family to go to college. Still, there were bumps along the way.
“My father’s side of the family was Quebecois, from Kamouraska. The Hebert side of the family, my mother’s side, has the Acadian name,” LaBrie said. “I grew up in a French household, and on the first day of school, I realized that everybody spoke English and I hadn’t been fully prepared for it.”
2LaBrie learned quickly, however, and graduated from high school with plans to enroll part time at the University of Maine at Fort Kent. But he had difficulties adjusting to student life. It took him 10 years to receive his bachelor’s degree. Over that same period, he advanced from student kitchen worker to the head of the food service department.
“I struggled, really struggled in the first several years of college, not really finding my footing, not really understanding, not having a family history of what college was about. I failed miserably in the first couple of terms, regrouped, and went back.”
3Continuing education has changed significantly since LaBrie’s student days. Today, around 40 percent of students in higher education are above 25, and another 40 percent study part time, according to a report from the Department of Education.
“The market has become much more technical. The workplace has become more complex. The traditional four-year graduate who could take that experience and parlay it into a lifelong career — that’s breaking down.”
4Although some continuing education programs, such as MBAs and master’s in education, have long been popular, technology and health-related enrollment is growing. Niche programs, like Northeastern’s degrees and certificates in drug and medical device regulation, are also popular because they deliver specialized curriculum that certain fields demand, LaBrie said.
“You just need to look at the regular economy to find out what’s hot. Anything in the technology area, health care, anybody who can code is almost guaranteed a job.”
5Most adult learners have a good idea of the credentials they need, but some are uncertain about which continuing education programs to pursue, especially when certificates and master’s degrees are offered in similar fields. In those cases, he said, students should consider programs that offer certificate credits that can be transferred to a degree program.
“An individual who’s looking at an expense of $8,000 to $12,000 for a certificate could say, ‘That’s a price I can absorb. That’s manageable for me. And in the future, if I want, within a certain period of time, to use those courses to go for the master’s degree, I can do that.’”
6LaBrie said students shouldn’t be deterred by the cost of a program until they’ve considered all their options. For some adult students, federal financial aid is available, he said, while many schools have dedicated scholarship funds for continuing education students. Many employers also offer tuition reimbursement.
Some adult learners “take a two-year degree and elongate [the time] as part-time students, which lowers the price point to where they’re able to work and pay for their education at the same time. That being said, we still have people who will participate in loans.”
7Whether young or old, it is important to remember that people have access to higher education, LaBrie said. As an undergraduate studying in France, he realized that students in other western countries often lacked the same opportunity.
“There was not the flexibility of the system. If you ever dropped out of the French system, you were out. [In the United States], if you make a mistake along the way, academically, there are options for you to recover.”