Back to School

By Greenberg, Richard | Techniques, March 2000 | Go to article overview

Back to School


Greenberg, Richard, Techniques


Many adults find that learning can be better the second time around.

Adults are heading back to school in droves, many drawn by the demands of a marketplace that has little patience for academic or technological laggards. The returnees are a diverse lot, with motivations ranging from the desire to enhance their workplace skills by keeping pace with technological advancements to the desire to change careers entirely.

For a growing number of adult students, "going to school" means going online at their home computer--plugging into increasingly popular distance learning courses, which offer adult students the flexibility and convenience they need to juggle family, work and education.

Returning students range from underemployed workers wanting more skilled positions to corporate supervisors seeking graduate degrees. Some are learning how to design Web pages, while others are learning how to hone their management techniques or take care of hospital patients. For these students, schooling takes place whenever they can squeeze it in -- after hours, at lunch or on weekends. Some hit the books at the behest of their employers, others take courses on their own initiative.

Steve Searles typifies many of today's adult students: multiple degrees, several different career experiences and looking for stability through new opportunities and fresh challenges. The 44-year-old worked for 10 years as an Oregon lumber mill production worker. When the plant closed, Searles switched gears, going back to school for an associate's degree in accounting. Wanting more, he earned a bachelor's degree in business management in night school while working in the finance department at Hewlett-Packard in Corvallis, Ore.

Then Searles realized his career focus had changed once again--this time to information technology. "I like to solve problems for people," he explains. "I like to help make jobs automated as opposed to repetitive and mundane." So Searles once again hit the books and now is working online for his MBA through Colorado State University (CSU), a school hailed as a pioneer in the distance learning field.

Searles is one of the estimated 90 million adult Americans who returned to class in 1999--46 percent of the entire U.S. adult population, according to a report released by the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) in November. That number shows a marked increase Over the number of adult students in 1991, when only 58 million were reported. In terms of sheer numbers, adult education even dwarfed enrollment in higher education in 1999, with six times the enrollment of traditional college courses.

Experts say the rapid growth in adult education can be attributed to the fact that people are living and staying active longer. Likewise, today's supercharged, information technology-based economy makes job-related knowledge and workplace skills obsolete faster than ever before. That helps elevate the importance of lifelong learning, a critical component of adult education, a form of schooling many say is more rewarding the second time around.

"I love working with adults because they're very self-directed people," says Nancy Swain, who works with adult students in the education department at Hewlett-Packard. "They haven't had this experience for 20 years. Now, they do things on time and there's no procrastinating like when they were kids. They get hooked on this feeling of accomplishment."

The students

A few years ago, Barry Kukovich wanted to polish his skills as the manager of media relations at Duquesne Light Company in Pittsburgh. The 47-year-old decided to concentrate in the area of strategic planning and crisis communication. Kukovich enrolled in the master's degree program for Strategic Communication and Leadership offered by Seton WorldWide, the online campus of Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J.

Kukovich described his distance learning program as "very intense," saying he was almost overwhelmed initially by the extra workload but adding that he learned to adjust. …

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