Higher Education

While U.S. struggles, Sweden pushes older students back to college

Generous benefits, cultural differences solve a problem America hasn’t cracked

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Ingela Theorin, 30, a personal trainer who has returned to college in Sweden to become a teacher.

Ingela Theorin, 30, a personal trainer who has returned to college in Sweden to become a teacher.

UPPSALA, Sweden — When the instructor in her teacher-training course invited students to share some music they remembered from their childhoods, Ingela Theorin played Ace of Base.

Her classmates, she said, “didn’t know who that was.”

During the years it topped the Swedish charts, the synthesizer-heavy pop group closed in on ABBA as the most successful in the nation’s history. But that was in the early 1990s. And Theorin’s fellow students were barely learning to walk then.

It was an inescapable reminder that Theorin, at 30, is almost half again as old as most of the people with whom she attends Uppsala University in this city 40 miles north of Stockholm.

She is by no means unique. A larger percentage of people go to college here who are older than the traditional age than in any other member country of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD. Fully a quarter of people graduating college in Sweden do so when they’re 25 or older, the OECD reports.

It’s a sobering contrast to the United States, where policymakers are struggling to drive more older learners into higher education as part of an effort to increase the proportion of the population with degrees — but where the number of older students has been going down, not up.

“We’re facing a shortage of skilled workers, and we know we can’t fill it by just more young people graduating. That’s going to be part of the solution but it isn’t going to solve the problem,” said Pamela Tate, president and CEO of the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning. “It’s not going to happen without adults.”

Related: The financial aid policy that shuts out millions of students

Yet unlike countries such as Sweden, the U.S. offers few supports for adults 25 and older who want to go back to school.

To qualify for federal financial aid in the U.S., for instance, students have to take at least two courses a semester, but few companies provide time off for that, and few working adults can manage it. Learners over 24 aren’t eligible at all for many state financial aid programs. There’s no requirement that their employers hold their jobs for them if they return to school full time, and little to no help balancing higher education with childcare. And if they’re lucky enough to qualify for tuition reimbursement — which many companies have cut since the economic downturn — most recipients have to put up the money themselves and then pay taxes on some of it when they’re reimbursed, as if it was income.

“Everybody needs people with higher skills, but we haven’t set up any kind of arrangements that make it possible,” Tate said. “It’s just so frustrating to see how well it’s done in other places. Because here it’s viewed as, ‘Oh my god, you can’t let people off work for education.’”

In Sweden, on the other hand, “It’s not shameful to go to university if you are older,” said Agnieszka Bron, chair of education at the sprawling Stockholm University on the outskirts of that city. “You’re sitting in the same class with younger students, but nobody will look at you as a stranger. You won’t be treated differently.”

Sixty-six percent of Swedes aged 25 to 64 are in college or some other kind of “non-formal” education — including online courses, private lessons, and seminars — one of the highest percentages in the world.

Related: Wealthier students more likely than poor to get private scholarships

Older learners in Sweden have even more privileges than the enviable package of supports available to younger students.

Carl Andrén Lundahl, 31, a pilot who has returned to medical school in Sweden.

Carl Andrén Lundahl, 31, a pilot who has returned to medical school in Sweden.

For example, in addition to free tuition, they’re eligible for subsidized childcare and allowances and low-cost loans for living expenses. The amounts of those loans go up if the older students, unlike their younger classmates, forgo income by leaving jobs. (Their employers have to hold those jobs for them almost indefinitely, although without pay.) And older Swedes even get preference in such things as clinical placements in hospitals if they’re studying medicine, so they can stay closer to their families.

“We’re so used to being able to do this,” said the cheerful Theorin, just out of yoga class, who already has one bachelor’s degree in sports education and has worked as a personal trainer and coach and as an au pair in England. “We don’t think twice about it. You can always study, as long as you can cover your living costs. It’s a very big privilege to be able to do this.”

Related: In Brazil, fast-growing universities mirror U.S. wealth divide

Across town, at the medical school, 31-year-old Carl Andrén Lundahl is studying to be a doctor after a bumpy ride in his first career as a charter pilot, which meant cycles of layoffs and re-hiring depending on the ups and downs of the economy.

“I got fed up,” said Lundahl, who is married with one child and another on the way. “So I just started looking in the college catalogs.”

With an unpaid leave of absence through 2019 from his last job, extra support from the government to make up for his salary, cheap childcare (“They charge us nothing, basically”), extra support for the fact that he has kids and to make up for his lost income, and first dibs on a clinical placement at the highly regarded hospital in Uppsala, Lundahl said, “Your family situation is not that stressed.”

At Swedish universities, “It doesn’t matter if you’re 40 years old or you’re 20,” he said. “I don’t consider myself separate. I don’t think the other older students do either. Sure we can’t go out to a pub on a Wednesday night with our classmates, but we’re not considered strange.”

While the ways older learners are treated in the United States and Sweden differ widely, Bron said a principal reason both countries want to get them back to school is the same: because increasingly complex jobs require higher education.

“The best solution, for both the United States and Sweden, is to get back to universities those who already have higher degrees, and change their competencies,” she said.

Related: As a whole new kind of college emerges, critics fret over standards

Birthplace of Skype and Spotify, Sweden has become second only to Finland among OECD countries in the proportion of its jobs that are in information technology industries.

In the United States, the growth of the knowledge economy means that 65 percent of all jobs by 2020 will require some sort of college or university training, according to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. At the current rate, however, the country will fall five million workers short, the center estimates.

“That is exactly why so many people are paying attention to this now. They’re saying, ‘Wow, we need to do something about this,’” said Tate. “It’s a strange conundrum that just at the time we need this the most we find we have all these policy and institutional barriers to it. It’s no wonder there’s as little participation as there is.”

While students over 24 made up 38 percent of the total enrollment at U.S. universities this spring, their total number fell by 3.6 percent in 2013, another 3.1 percent in 2014 and a further 3.6 percent this year, according to the National Student Clearinghouse.

Of course, the generous subsidies of older students in Sweden come with a cost. Swedes pay the equivalent of 43 percent of their nation’s gross domestic product in taxes, compared to Americans’ 25 percent.

One of the reasons so many older learners go back to school in Sweden, Bron said, “is that the state is generous.”

But there’s a cultural reason, too, she added.

In Sweden, Bron said, there’s broad consensus that “You’re never too old to learn.”

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