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New National Survey Details Plus 50 Programs at Community Colleges Study finds colleges are re-tooling programs, services to serve influx of adult learners


WASHINGTON, D.C. – Move over 18-year-old high school students. There’s a new student on campus, and she might be your mom. A new survey by the Plus 50 Initiative at the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) finds that community colleges are reaching out to students over the age of 50 and planning to expand programs for them.

Eighty-four percent of the 204 community colleges participating in the survey reported that their institutions offer programs for students over the age of 50. Ninety-three percent of these colleges perceive a demand for this type of programming – predominantly from people age 50 and up in their community, but from business and community organizations as well.

Many community colleges reported that they plan to expand their offerings for plus 50 students. Seventy percent of colleges offering enrichment courses for plus 50 students said that they plan to expand their offerings. Half of the 14 percent that do not currently have enrichment offerings for baby boomers plan to add them in the future.

The results came as no surprise to George R. Boggs, AACC President and CEO. “Community colleges have a long history of reaching out to non-traditional students and structuring programs to meet immediate community needs. It’s heartening to see so many colleges throwing a lifeline to plus 50 students coping with a difficult job market during distressing economic times.”

With plunging retirement accounts forcing them to stay on the job into what have traditionally been retirement years, baby boomers are increasingly turning to community colleges for help refreshing their workplace skills and job training.

Fifty-eight percent of the colleges with plus 50 programs reported that they offer workforce training and career development for plus 50 students. These include programs like resume tune-ups, job interviewing boosters, computer refresher courses, and certificate programs for training in new careers. Forty-five percent of the colleges with workforce training and career development programs reach out to local employers to communicate the value of plus 50 employees. Thirty-eight percent of them also offer workshops, training, and other resources to employers seeking to recruit or retain plus 50 workers.

Coming back to campus after decades away can be a daunting experience. To make the transition into the classroom easier, 36 percent of the colleges said that they have modified curriculum or delivery to meet the needs of plus 50 students. Two-thirds have allocated staff time to support plus 50 student programs. Nearly 35 percent of them have put in place easy registration processes for these non-traditionally aged students.

Targeted marketing is increasingly important. Forty-three percent are using marketing plans to let plus 50 adults know about the educational opportunities available to them at community colleges. About one-quarter of the institutions said within the last five years they had conducted a needs assessment of the local population that is age 50 and over to help guide their program development.

In spite of these promising developments, researchers found that external factors beyond the control of the responding colleges frequently affected their ability to support programs for plus 50 students.

Providing tuition waivers for the over 50 population presents a challenge for 65 percent of reporting institutions. State policies for tuition waivers leave many plus 50 adults in the lurch and without financial aid. Tuition waivers are frequently not available for adults under the age of 60 and are often provided for full-time students only. They may only be used with for-credit courses or to cover courses that are under-enrolled. Older learners frequently attend part time and may be drawn to non-credit courses.

More than half of the community colleges that have programming reported that formulas used to hold colleges accountable pose a challenge to implementing plus 50 student programs. In many states, community college funding is based on the number of full time equivalent (FTE) students. Consequently, the more FTEs a community college has, the more funding it receives. Typically, only credit courses, which are less attractive to plus 50 students, count for FTE computations. As a result, many community colleges do not receive state funding to support plus 50 students. Many colleges realize that attracting plus 50 students to campus, could actually cause a net revenue drain.

“The policies in many states pose a conundrum for community colleges that are seeking to help a baby boomer population that wants short-term workforce training and career development programs,” said Boggs. “The survey results provide ample recommendations to help community colleges improve their outreach for plus 50 students, but they also demonstrate the challenges facing the plus 50 student movement.”

Approximately 204 community colleges responded to the survey, which was conducted in fall 2008 and sent to 1,177 institutions representing every community college in the United States. Researchers caution that the sample did not perfectly represent the population of community colleges, and that respondents were more likely to be larger and multi-campus institutions.

An executive summary and a full report detailing the survey’s results are available at:


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