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The Future of College—And What It Means For You

For midlife learners, the landscape is changing dramatically, with more choices and more caveats


by Sarah Mahoney

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Anyone over the age of 40 has noticed that navigating career-changing education is different than it used to be. Sizing up the new offerings, from MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) and self-directed learning to externships and maker spaces, is enough to make lucky midlife learners feel like kids in a candy store. Start exploring: “Too much college is wasted on the young,” says Mitchell L. Stevens, an associate professor of education at Stanford and co-editor of Remaking College: The Changing Ecology of Higher Education. He explains the shifts to Life Reimagined. 

What’s changed most about education in recent decades?

One of the virtues of the U.S. system is that there are thousands of schools, almost always within easy driving distance from almost every American, and the community college tradition has long served adult learners over the course of their lives.

But in the last 30 years, we have fairly substantially narrowed what counted as an ideal college education to four years of a residential experience early in life. Most careers don’t work that way anymore, and the prospect of lifetime employment in one job or field isn’t really feasible for many people. So on one hand, we’re trapped between this narrow ideal of college and the reality of people’s lives. 

And on the other, there are many new options, all being sped up by digital media. That’s changing the character of work and making it possible for people to reimagine their relationship with school. The variety of pathways through college now is equally valuable as the four-year residential model.

In what ways is a 40 or 50-year-old better off returning to school now, compared to a generation ago?

This proliferation of college options. A previous generation relied on community colleges and comprehensive state universities. Now there’s a range of for-profit options, and online options of all sorts. Many are low cost or free, and fit into the rhythm of adult lives. 

What ways are they worse off?

Costs. People are paying more out of pocket for credit-bearing courses. And there is a wide variation in quality and academic value. A generation ago, it’s not that the quality was higher. But there was much more trust in the higher education system to provide a certainly level of quality. And we are literally just now working out how to assess quality.

Are there other caveats?

The for-profit sector offers many new, more flexible opportunities. They also have an interest in getting people to enroll. People need to do homework about what they can reasonably expect.

 What advice do you have for people who are trying to work out the math, and decide if investing in a return to school is worth it?

First, explore as much as you can in low-cost ways. MOOCs make it possible for people to explore a wide variety of academic areas at very little cost of money or time. Free is pretty good!

Second, look carefully at whatever outcome measures are available for a particular program. Any reputable institution of higher learning should be able to give some evidence of the earnings returns and job placements of its grads. If a school can’t do that, that’s something to be cautious about.

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