Community Colleges Welcome Older Students

Philip Moeller

Whether it's older workers needing skills training to qualify for new jobs, baby boomers seeking encore careers, or retired folks pursuing a new hobby, community colleges are worth a serious look. Many community colleges have been expanding their offerings to older students, including developing more user-friendly ways for people to re-enter higher education after decades away from the classroom.

The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) is expanding its national "Plus 50" learning program with nearly 50 community colleges. Participating schools

are developing more expertise in meeting the needs of older students, and then acting as mentors to other community colleges. The group says there are about 1,200 community colleges in the United States, and that about 13 million people take courses each year.

Nearly 90 percent of the schools already offer programs for older students, mostly in enrichment topics that meet lifestyle needs. A national survey by AACC shows that about 60 percent of the schools had workforce training and career development programs. But only 30 percent had programs to support older students interested in volunteer, social-service, and other community-oriented service programs.

"The learning needs of this age group are not necessarily the same as for other groups," says Mary Sue Vickers, AACC director of the Plus 50 program. While community colleges continue to offer diverse courses to meet student needs, their ability to ease learning for older students varies a lot. Older students may face serious barriers when they go back to school, including lack of computer skills, locating old transcripts that may be required for admissions and placement needs, and applying for financial aid.

The AACC survey found that 63 percent of community colleges provide computer training tailored to older learners. But the percentages fell rapidly for other Plus 50 needs. An easy registration process and centralized services for Plus 50 learners were found at a third of the schools. Only 15 percent offered Plus 50 student counseling services, and only one school in 15 had orientation programs and other "concierge" services for older students.

The AACC has developed a checklist of steps boomers and other older learners should take in considering if a community college will meet their needs.

1. What do you want to study and how many hours of classes do you want to take? If you're going back to school to get new workplace skills, make sure they are the right skills for the job you want. Even if there's a perfect match, you also should make sure the local job market will be providing such jobs in the future. If you're going back to school to learn about a new hobby or interest, think about involving friends in the activity. Being in a group can enrich the social benefits of going back to school, and also ease the burdens of the admissions process.

2. Find your local community college. Use the AACC's Community College Finder.

3. Do online research. Look at the college's website. Check out course offerings, the timing for new classes, and admissions requirements. See if it has Plus 50 services.

4. Visit the campus. Check out the library and other student services. How's the parking? Walk around. Get a sense of what it would be like to attend classes. If you want to visit a class, call ahead to see if special arrangements are required. Don't be shy about seeking out student services and getting advice from staffers.

5. Talk to students. Do you know anyone who's taken classes at your local community college? Ask them about the experience. Call the student advising office and see if they can recommend another older learner you can speak with. When you do talk to another student, ask them for the pluses and minuses of their experience, including tips on areas that may be new to you--the admissions process, sources of financial aid, and the like.

6. Make sure you can handle school commitments. Do you have the time to go to classes and do the required assignments? Do you need to make special arrangements with friends and family members? Will any of your current commitments suffer, and what can you do to minimize any adverse impact?

7. What's your technical IQ? Going back to school may require you to have a computer and Internet access. Even if not required, such tools will make school much easier. Ask your school's student services offices about computer needs, and also about any programs they have to provide computer training and other services to help you.

8. Can you afford school? Find out what you will need to spend, including on books and supplies. Your school most likely has financial-aid specialists. Ask them about aid programs, particularly if you're going back to school to learn new workplace skills. The AACC has financial-aid tips as well.

Twitter: @PhilMoeller