Schenectady — If you are a baby boomer who is thinking of going to college, you won’t be alone on campus. “Last year we had over 300 students here on campus that were over the age of 50. Some were enrolled in degree programs and some were just here taking classes,” says Dawn Jones of the Office of Career and Transfer Services at Schenectady County Community College.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, students over age 35 accounted for 17 percent of all college and graduate students in 2009, and that rate is expected to rise to 19 percent by 2020. Baby boomers sign up at the Schenectady community college for many different reasons, says Jones, a nontraditional career adviser. “One is to update those skills to stay relevant in the workforce longer. They want to be working longer. And sometimes they need to be working longer just because of financial need.”
Some boomers retire from one career and want to try a new one. “They want to do something different. Or they want to give back, to find different ways to utilize some of the skills that they had in a way that’s meaningful and help others. Sometimes people may have been very successful in a career that they had and now they are retiring but they knew all along it wasn’t what they really wanted to be doing. They want to be doing things that are more important to them.”
For other boomers, it’s a chance to be free and focus on themselves. “Maybe they were too busy with family and other responsibilities and couldn’t do it before and now they have that opportunity,” Jones says. And then there are the people who lose their jobs when they are in their 50s or early 60s. “They may have experienced a layoff and are having difficulty finding new employment,” she says.
Education is a way “to get back into the workforce.” See an adviser if you are over 50 and hope to change careers or to enhance your skills. The first step is to get some help with decision-making, Jones says. “I would definitely recommend sitting down with an adviser and talking about all the different options, someone who can assess what their strengths are, what their values are and what their passions are.”
The college recently completed a three-year grant program, the Plus 50 Initiative, to support and engage students age 50 and over. Organized by the American Association of Community Colleges, the program focuses on workforce training and preparing for new careers. At Schenectady, Jones can evaluate your skills based on your career of interest. Another career and education planning tool, called Focus 2, looks not only at skills but your values and personality type. Older students can also practice their interview skills. “Sometimes it’s a mock interview in the office, where we are going through interview-related questions. We may even videotape that mock interview,” Jones says.
Robert Frederick, the director of Schenectady’s Office of Career and Transfer Services, has developed a tool called speed networking in which students go through a simulation of all types of job-seeking situations with actual employers and those employers give the students relevant feedback.
Classes and programs that are popular with older students include human service fields, culinary and business. “They want to move into management positions or maybe go into business for themselves,” Jones says. Returning students must also decide whether they want a certificate program, “to get in and out quickly,” or a longer academic program that leads to an associate’s degree.
Is there an age when it’s too late? “It’s not about a number, it’s about a mindset,” Jones says. “We’ve had students in their 60s and 70s, and I think we’ve even had a few older than that, taking classes and enrolled in degree programs. There’s no age limit, there’s no limit to what you can do if you want to be doing it.”