A month before turning 60, Helen White received her master’s degree in sport management at George Washington University and now teaches basketball and pickleball and organizes recreational programs and tournaments for older adults throughout the Washington area.
“I wanted to change the stereotype of older adults by getting them to move and enjoy the power of play,” White said. “The degree opened opportunities for me to do that.”
In a way, it was a back-to-her-roots time for White, who played basketball and tennis competitively throughout her high school and college years, obtaining her first degree in physical education and recreation. But it was also a bet on her future after leaving AARP, where she had been a manager of information services. White, who lives in Arlington, Va., spent about $24,000 as a part-time student for four years to prepare for her new life.
For many, a retirement of baby-sitting grandchildren and golfing is passe. Older people today approach work as a pillar of a retirement lifestyle, planning ahead and adding skills even before leaving their current jobs.
As demand for more adult learning opportunities accelerates, colleges and universities are trying to figure out how to tap into the market for second careers to bolster their revenue and perhaps build alumni loyalty.
The potential audience is huge. “It makes no sense, however, to have an educational system that ends in the 20s when people are likely to be working into their 80s,” said Laura L. Carstensen, founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity. “We need to rethink these things.”
The need to offer more educational options that can lead to jobs for older adults is gaining traction.
In March, deans, provosts, and vice presidents from 22 institutions, including Arizona State University, Columbia University, Community College of Vermont, Cornell University, Denison University, Tulane University, UCLA and the University of Washington, held a daylong summit at New York University to discuss future curriculums and collaborations.
Their mission was to work together on ways to create intergenerational, age-friendly institutions and build a network to help students like White and others who want to reboot to service-oriented work.
Among the challenges are how to provide courses for those in an aging population who lack the time or financial resources for full-blown degree-based programs. One idea was to offer older students college credits for work and life experience as a way to reduce the number of classes needed for a degree.
The meeting was a sign of the rising awareness among colleges and universities of the prospects in the demographic shifts around aging. “Universities frequently compete, but this is a space we can find a reason to collaborate,” said Richard A. Matasar, vice president for university enterprise initiatives at NYU.
In recent years, community colleges have reached out to adults interested in practical continuing education. The American Association of Community Colleges’ Plus 50 Initiative, for example, creates campus programs for people 50 and older, with an emphasis on training for the workplace. If President Obama’s proposal for free tuition at community colleges becomes law, even more older students are likely to participate.
Students not seeking degrees often can audit classes at a local college or enroll in massive open online courses at little or no cost, via Coursera, Udacity, EdX, and Lynda.com. The Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes allow students 50 and older who aren’t seeking to earn credit to attend classes at more than 100 universities.
One-year adult education programs aimed at professionals are also on the increase. The first class of 24 students began orientation last December at the Stanford Distinguished Careers Institute. Tuition for the 2016 program is $62,000. The Advanced Leadership Initiative at Harvard is a similar program.
An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the Advanced Leadership Initiative.