At one community college, a jump in older students

We asked aloud in September if people might be better off without college in this recession. Clearly, we were way off.

Headcounts in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system are at a record high. At one of those schools, Normandale Community College in Bloomington, the biggest percentage growth is among Minnesotans in their 30s and 40s.

Kate Metzger, Normandale’s communications officer and a source in MPR’s Public Insight Network, helped us find fall 2009 enrollment data by age and compare it to the past few years.

Traditional students — ages 24 and younger — still make up most of Normandale’s total enrollment. But a look at the bar graph shows the biggest percentage gains during the recession coming from people who are likely working adults.

We’ve all suspected the rotten economy was behind the overall college enrollment growth. If your job’s eliminated, you need to retrain. Or maybe your spouse lost a job and you need to find a way back into the workforce.

“Anecdotally we know that many of our adult students are returning for retraining and further education due to job layoffs or other changes caused by the economic conditions,” says Rick Smith, Normandale’s enrollment dean.

Smith says Normandale, one of MnSCU’s largest two-year schools, doesn’t see older students coalescing around specific majors.

Paula Fleming’s seen the changes from a different vantage point. She’s a teacher / tutor for Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions in St. Paul. She tells us:

A number of students I have taught or tutored for Kaplan in the last six months have been older students. Several had been laid off from their jobs (school counselor, pharmaceutical rep, to name two) and were using the forced break in their careers to take stock and go back to school to start new careers.

While Fleming’s seen many students frustrated at having to “reacquire skills that did not seem very relevant to their academic or career paths in order to gain access to further education,” she notes that her older and younger students seem to mesh well.

There’s no “embarrassment or self-consciousness on the part of older students about their age, either when interacting with me or with younger students,” says Fleming, another Network source. “It now seems generally accepted as normal that people return to school at all stages of life.”

Keep this conversation going. Are you an older student who’s returned to school to retrain or do you know someone who’s gone back? Are you a school administrator? Tell us what you see. Post in the comment area below or contact me directly.

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What’s the economy like around you these days? Check the map below to see what Minnesotans in our network are telling us about the jobs climate around them. Then share your own story.

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