Higher Education

Going back to school after 50

A reader asks: How common is it for people seek out vocational training later in life?

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Army veteran Chester Dixon, right, works with William Moore, Georgia Department of Labor veterans representative, to apply for a new skills-based program to get out-of-work veterans trained and back in the job market, in Atlanta. The program is open to veterans between the ages of 35 and 60.

Army veteran Chester Dixon, right, works with William Moore, Georgia Department of Labor veterans representative, to apply for a new skills-based program to get out-of-work veterans trained and back in the job market, in Atlanta. The program is open to veterans between the ages of 35 and 60.

This story is part of our Map to the Middle Class project, where we ask readers what they want us to investigate about educational pathways to financial stability. This question comes from Carolyn Porzilli in California. She asks: How common is the practice of returning to school for vocational training in workers over age 40, 50, & 60?

Carolyn Porzilli used to find work without any trouble. Not long after moving to a new city, and after a couple of tweaks to her resume, she’d easily slide into “some variation on a secretarial job,” she tells me.

That started to change as she got older. More recently, gig work along with editing and graphic design for her husband’s audio electronics business have paid the bills. But as she neared retirement age with only Social Security to count on, Porzilli decided to go back to school to pick up a new, marketable skill. Now 61, she’s about midway through a certificate program in medical transcription and editing.

The United States is notoriously ineffective at retraining workers who’ve been displaced by outsourcing and technological change, and it invests just 0.03 percent of GDP on training people, compared with Denmark’s 0.6 percent and Germany’s 0.2 percent.

For older Americans who want to retool their skills, they often have to spend a significant amount of their own money to return to school, and it can be daunting to determine if it’s worth it. (The Consumer Financial Protection Board found in 2017 that Americans age 60 and older owed an average of $23,500 in student loan debt, nearly double the average a decade earlier, though most of those loans were used to pay for children’s and grandchildren’s educations.)

For her part, Porzilli put down what she says was a modest amount toward her certificate program, and so far she’s happy with her investment, though she has yet to go on the job market. But she’s wondering about others like her: What steps are people in their 40s, 50s and 60s taking to retrain themselves?

It turns out the data on older students is imperfect, but here are some numbers we do know: Of the 12.1 million students enrolled in community colleges in 2015-16, about 903,000 were 40 or older, according to Martha Parham, senior vice president of public relations for the American Association of Community Colleges. Most of those older students, about 663,000, are participating in vocational programs like the one in which Porzilli is enrolled.

Parham says she doesn’t have data on whether those figures have risen, but, “anecdotally, I can tell you that that is a popular course of action,” she said. “We have a lot of those students who have a bachelor’s and are maybe coming back to learn a new skill or get certified as a realtor or become a chef.”

According to the latest data from the National Center for Education Statistics, meanwhile, some 22 percent of students enrolled in credential-seeking subbaccalaureate occupational education (like computer and information science, manufacturing and marketing) were age 35 and older.

Colleges and vocational programs have often struggled to accommodate older people. In 2015, the American Association of Community Colleges and the AARP Foundation produced a report on the shortcomings of higher education for older adults and ways to improve their transitions into school and back into the workforce. Older job seekers are not getting the information they need about in-demand jobs and cost-effective ways of training, nor are federal and state workforce programs targeted to older Americans, the report said. (As my Hechinger colleagues have shown, not all training pays off and it can be difficult to sort out which do: Some cosmetology certificate programs, for example, charge nearly $20,000 on average and graduate students into jobs that pay little more than minimum wage.)

The AARP Foundation report recommended new requirements for better financial aid and career counseling for older people; tax reforms to provide more financial support for these students when they return to school; and more flexible learning opportunities, such as dividing programs into microcredentials that can be earned in just a few weeks.

Jacqueline Peña is dean of faculty at Miami Dade College’s North Campus, one of about 17 colleges and workforce organizations that received support through an AARP Foundation program to help people over 50 gather new skills and find jobs. Peña says that on her campus, the mean age of students is around 29, and that there’s a slowly rising population of students who are over 50.

The shift hasn’t been dramatic in credit programs such as engineering or psychology, she says, but the college is seeing more older Americans enroll in individual classes or non-degree programs. Introductory computer classes are particularly popular.

Peña says that, for these students, the “fear factor” of getting back into the classroom is particularly potent. Some have bachelor’s degrees (that’s true for Porzilli, who studied design). Still, “for a lot of our 50-plus who come to us, the confidence isn’t there,” says Peña. “They’ve been beaten up or underemployed for a while, they are struggling financially and perhaps in other ways.”

To help, Miami Dade has hired coaches who provide individual counseling on resumes, job searches, finances and personal matters. “We hold our 18-year-olds’ hands,” says Peña. “I think we need to do that a little bit differently for our 50-plus individuals, too.”

This story about adult learners was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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Caroline Preston is a senior editor. She previously worked as a features editor with Al Jazeera America's digital team and a senior reporter with The… See Archive

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