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Service, liberal education, being responsive to society’s needs, and a commitment to social justice: the tenets of a Jesuit education look a lot more like the innovative future than some might think.

The founder of the Jesuit order, St. Ignatius of Loyola, was an adult learner who never finished college and returned to higher learning in his 40s as a wounded veteran focused on preparing for a civilian career in theology.

Working adults now comprise 40 percent of U.S. undergraduates, and the 75 million working adults with no college degree represent an important and growing constituency for U.S. higher education. Institutions that think only of the student who is arriving at college directly from high school at age 17 or 18 are not only missing out on the fastest-growing portion of students, but are also taking a step back from the core purpose of education at the moment we need them to lean in.

Related: What do at-risk students, English language learners and adult college students have in common?

From the beginning, the Jesuits started schools as a practical way to serve the common good of society at large.

This humanistic conviction and purpose stood in contrast to the prevailing university model of the time. Providing education for adult learners is consistent with this original impulse. Jesuit education is not static. It has evolved its approach and dynamically responds to social, cultural and economic change over time.

Put this in historical context: The 20th century was defined by a period of expanding access to postsecondary learning for an ever-broadening range of students — veterans through the G.I. Bill, then students of color, then low-income students through the Pell Grant, and so forth. The challenge for the next 100 years is to serve more students regardless of their age or professional track. Today, we need to serve students like St. Ignatius, in addition to the traditional 18- to 22-year-old students, particularly low-income and first-generation college students.

Of course, serving working adults brings with it challenges, both academic and operational. Making the shift isn’t easy, particularly for centuries-old institutions built from the ground up to focus on traditional baccalaureate and graduate programs. The methods of teaching a brilliant 18-year-old with intellectual passion but limited life and work experience can differ dramatically from educating adults, who bring to their studies rich lived experiences as reference points. Support services take a very different shape when students are balancing work, family and other commitments with higher education.

At most institutions, professional and continuing studies for working adults are viewed as add-ons — housed in separate divisions sometimes called “extensions.” They are often not considered a core part of the school’s mission. But labor-market forces and demographic change have a funny way of forcing institutions to make strategic adjustments to fulfill their missions. This represents a sweet spot for higher education and society alike: Institutions have an opportunity to enroll more students, and there are millions of adults who need education beyond high school.

“Embracing new demographics, instead of running from them, will enable us to bridge the gaps between human capital, knowledge and societal needs.”

Higher education is parodied for a supposed tendency to hide in the cloisters, to wrap itself in the bubble of academic life. We ignore this at our own risk. The modern American university needs once again to be at the center of civic, intellectual and professional life. Embracing new demographics, instead of running from them, will enable us to bridge the gaps between human capital, knowledge and societal needs.

Related: Is college enrollment among older adults increasing? Depends who you ask

Not only is this the right thing to do — our society and economy depend on it. According to the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University, if 20 million more Americans completed postsecondary degrees, we could improve the GDP by $500 billion and reduce the wage gap by 40 percent.

If institutions of higher education expect to deliver on the lofty promise of intellectual discovery with simultaneous preparation for life, work and citizenship, we must reject the false choice of liberal education versus career education, adults versus traditional undergraduates, and many other seemingly competing priorities.

In the most aspirational sense, if we view higher education as society’s most important force for social mobility, we must embrace this all-inclusive approach that holds true the importance of all students, regardless of their walks of life.

Challenge accepted.

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

Kelly Otter is the dean of Georgetown University’s School of Continuing Studies.

Pete Wheelan is the CEO of Inside Track, a provider of educational management and student services.

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