As college students across the country return to classrooms for another school year, the images most often associated with back-to-school include the traditional college-age students between the ages of 18 and 21. But the reality is that more and more adults are also going back to school.
As dean of Villanova University’s College of Professional Studies, I often reflect this time of year on the pathway of the adult learner in higher education and society, and their commitment to educational aspirations, professional advancement, and lifelong learning.
This fall, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, 19.9 million students will attend colleges and universities. Remarkably, 7.4 million of those students will be 25 years of age or older. I have the honor of leading Villanova’s academic unit that provides many pathways for adults to pursue an education — whether that involves completing an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, or returning to school for continuing professional education that can lead to industry-recognized certifications.
Despite political debates questioning the role and benefits of higher education in society, the advantages of a college degree for one’s economic trajectory are well-documented — for example, higher workforce participation, greater earning potential, and lower unemployment. A new study published in the Journal of Higher Education recently highlighted that even some college attendance (and even if not accumulating to completion of a full degree) had positive, significant economic impacts.
However, financial calculations, while undoubtedly important, represent only a fraction of the decision calculus motivating adults to go “back to school.” The adult students I meet every day are highly ambitious, intellectually curious, and enthusiastically engaged in their communities.
They also look at education a little differently. In addition to wanting to take their entrepreneurial start-up to the next level, or aspiring to move up the corporate ladder, many are determined to serve as a role model for others. They recognize that education broadens their perspectives, challenges them to think in new ways, and opens new opportunities for themselves and their families. They bring their rich and diverse life experiences to the classroom, recognizing that their unique perspective benefits their peers.
Students at all ages go “back to school” because they embrace the potential for transformation. Higher education provides a space for innovation, experimentation and reflection. And those lessons and experiences are directly transferable to work and life, laying the foundation for future exploration and a passion for lifelong learning. Just this week I witnessed more than a hundred senior citizens visit our campus to register for classes with undergraduates through our “Personal Enrichment” Program. Some of these students have been auditing classes for decades, simply for the joy of learning.
Adult students pay for their education in a variety of ways. Some students can use employee tuition benefits from their companies. Others may be able to utilize federal student aid or explore student loan options. Scholarship opportunities exist for adult students as well.
The world we live in demands that we remain intellectually curious and find ways to push the limits of what we think we can accomplish. Our societies and economies are experiencing transformations of monumental proportions, and the future of work and life is rapidly changing by the second. These changes necessitate creativity, flexibility, critical thinking, and a continued commitment to learning throughout one’s life and career.
At Villanova, one of the most-often cited quotes from St. Augustine is, “Become what you are not yet.” The reality is that we all have the potential and promise to pursue continued intellectual and personal growth.
Although the pace and scope of change can be unsettling, there is also, I would argue, great beauty and hope in the possibilities that it affords to each one of us. It is never too late to learn and grow. Reinvention has no expiration date. So, if you are thinking about going back to school — whether it’s to change career paths or advance in your current career — don’t be afraid to take the leap.
Christine Kelleher Palus, PhD, is dean of the College of Professional Studies at Villanova University.