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Boomers fuel growth of adult education

Posted: Friday, February 08, 2002

NEW YORK (AP) -- Katrina Brown was busy raising a family and working full-time as a manager for the Long Island Rail Road. But deciding she needed more, Brown enrolled in an online master's degree program two years ago with the University of Phoenix.

''There were various positions at my work that I couldn't apply for because they required a master's. Now I have the degree,'' said Brown, 42, who received her M.A. in organizational management last fall and is now seeking a doctorate.

Adult education providers report a surge in enrollment in recent years, fueled by never-to-be-satisfied baby boomers heading back to school. That has meant new revenue for traditional colleges and universities and for-profit institutions.

The growth is most evident in professional degree programs including business, nursing and counseling. But the impact is also being felt in more esoteric courses such as wine tasting and painting, educators say.

''Boomers have always been seekers -- looking for spiritual enrichment or intellectual enrichment,'' said Ed Shanahan, an editor for My Generation, AARP's magazine for baby boomers.

''When you get to the age of 45, 50 or 55, this is one of your last good chances to tackle something you always wanted to do but put off for several reasons. I think going back to school is one of those things for them,'' he said.

In 2001, about 20.8 percent of U.S. college and university students were age 35 or over, according to estimated figures from the National Center for Education Statistics and the Census Bureau. That's up from 11.7 percent in 1980, when boomers were between the ages of 16 and 34.

''The industry is huge, and it's growing,'' said Alexander Paris, analyst for Chicago-based Barrington Research, who has a ''buy'' rating on the stocks of several for-profit providers of adult education. He cites the reality today that workers with degrees tend to get more pay raises and promotions.

Recent layoffs also appear to be sending many workers, including boomers, back to school to make them more competitive in a tight job market, Paris said.

Indeed, several schools, from for-profit companies such as DeVry Inc. to nonprofits such as the University of Pennsylvania, report substantial boomer enrollment in their part-time adult education programs, where the median age is typically in the mid-30s or higher.

At the University of Phoenix, the nation's largest for-profit university with 107,000 students at more than 100 locations, many time-strapped boomers have chosen the online program, which has grown 60 percent to 80 percent in recent years to 30,000 students, said Laura Palmer Noone, the school's president.

It's no different at DeVry, where boomers make up 29 percent of the enrollment at its Keller Graduate School of Management, which has 45 locations nationwide.

''Boomers are the group that has driven graduate management education throughout the '80s and '90s,'' said David Overbye, director of academic affairs at Keller, a boomer himself. ''Unlike, say, my dad's generation, when it was not common for someone in their 40s to be in graduate school, this group is well-represented.''

Several years ago, Angelo Costanza decided a few years ago to get his M.B.A. from DeVry after working eight years as a customer operations manager for Coca-Cola Co. Since then, Costanza, 51, has used the degree to get several pay raises and is now teaching a part-time course on organizational behavior at the Keller school.

Once worried that he might be overlooked by employers for lacking an advanced degree, the Chicago resident said he now has several career options available, such as teaching or consulting.

''I like to be busy,'' he said. ''Who knows where my path goes?''

Still, it's not always about career advancement, particularly for older boomers.

At the University of Pennsylvania's College of General Studies, about 58 percent of the students taking noncredit courses such as impressionist painting, wine tasting or Oriental rugs are boomers over age 50, said Richard Hendrix, the college's dean.

''It's one of my beliefs that they're doing this as an alternative to sitting at home and watching television,'' he said. ''I call these people lifelong learners.''

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