Opinion: Daily Journal

Back to School: If Rodney Dangerfield Could Do It, So Can I

This week’s “Daily Journal” guest columnist is Dr. Karen Palasek, Director of Educational and Academic Programs for the John Locke Foundation.

RALEIGH — While many people my age are thinking about retiring in the next 10 to 15 years, I’m thinking about an extended career, and I returned to school over a year ago to help make that a more attractive reality.

It’s not that I interrupted my college education early to divert into family or the work force. That’s one reason that nontraditional — heretofore known as adult — learners have been flocking into secondary, post-secondary, and multisecondary learning situations. There are lots of reasons, from the purely pragmatic to the self-driven, and all variations in between.

I completed a doctoral degree in 1989, and I am not a “professional student.” I haven’t, in other words, delayed work experience so that I could hang around colleges as a perpetual nongraduate. But I am, in most any sense of the word, a Learner, and I guess at this stage one could confidently say a Lifelong Learner. So the move to return to the formal world of school as a student rather than a teacher this time was motivated by many of the same things that are motivating others in the Boomer generation to do the same.

Many similar adults have had significant career and educational experience, face myriad emerging changes in the marketplace for work, and in today’s world, can be looking at 20 to 30 vital years beyond the traditional retirement age. Mental and physical activity are both life-and health-extending propositions, research says, making second and third careers, and late or multiple trips through college over a lifetime, entirely within the bounds of expectation.

The motivation for adults to enroll in college, particularly to return in the midst of a working career, has several sources. Developing alternative careers, the desire to transition to a next career stage before the current one has peaked, the courage and vision to reassess one’s self in light of one’s interests and experiences, and a willingness to take risks and experiment that comes with self-awareness at a more mature point in life — for some — are all motivations cited by researchers. Others include setting an example for your kids, following the example of a friend, internal pressure, and developments in the external job market. “Go out on a limb. Isn’t that where the fruit is?” reads one commentary on the matter.

Are some people predisposed to become Lifelong Learners? Apparently. The social, familial, and cultural milieu all contribute their bits to our curiosity, and to our inclination to satisfy it.

Lifelong Learning has no special format or delivery technique. It can be formal or informal, but embraces at its best a holistic approach to emotional, social, and intellectual development. It includes home education, adult education, continuing education, “knowledge work” or on-the-job education, as well as self-directed learning. Professional categories have even arisen to describe and serve the LL community in its various configurations.

The debate over the “best” route, and there is a relevant debate because of what’s at stake for providers as well as for students, divides over the relative value of online vs. live classroom experiences. Some obvious attractions of an online curriculum are its flexibility in instruction as well as learning, ability to offer a variety of resources via electronic means, and often its cost of delivery. On the down side, distance ed excludes the possibility of value from “impromptu happenings” in the classroom, the live give-and-take that arises from visual, audio, and other, more subtle environmental signatures. It also precludes a face-to-face experience, one of the most powerful interactive situations for any human communication. So in terms of absolutes, the jury is out. A mixed format, blended from distance technologies combined with classroom time, is frequently seen as a happier medium between either exclusive offering.

There is no doubt that adult enrollment in colleges has been boosted by an unattractive-looking economy. A down job market is often an up market for college, and particularly for graduate school enrollment. But according to a March 2009 report, even before the recession hit, over 47 percent of the nation’s college students, undergraduate through graduate levels, were over 25 years of age. Thus niche programs, such as the Executive graduate program into which I enrolled, have tended to flourish in the face of shrinking university endowments, the weak economy, and some intense competition in the traditional undergraduate market. In 2008, the University of California at Berkeley reported that graduate school applications were up 28 percent over the previous year, and the highest in 23 years at the school. Full-time MBA applications alone were up 20 percent over the previous year.

Adult back-to-schoolers, and adults remaining in the work force over longer periods of time, pose leadership as well as management challenges. We are already at the point at which, for the first time in history, four generations of workers are participating in the work force simultaneously. The diverse needs and demands that this places upon the individuals in charge suggests the urgency with which we need to address leadership’s need to embrace change, welcome uncertainty as opportunity, and find a way to coalesce order out of disorder in an emerging, broad diversity of participants. And we’d better get leadership trained sooner rather than later. With the influx of Gen 2020, those born after 1997, we are expecting to have an unprecedented five generations working simultaneously in the economy. It’s a sobering thought.

If returning to school as an adult sounds much like a Polar Bear swim, let’s admit it is certainly not for everyone. Much of the appeal depends on your comfort zone, as well as your ability and willingness to strike out into something unknown, at perhaps twice the age of your college cohort. My comfort zone road map reads “Find a better way,” which leads me to be restless, curious, and educationally ambitious (hopefully not “random,” as one unnamed daughter, herself a grad student, originally commented). Lifelong Learning also fits remarkably well with at least one aspect of the job I now perform, directing a leadership development and training program. Leaders are generally LL’s, apparently. From JFK’s Dallas, Texas, speech, fatefully never delivered, we have: “Leadership and learning are indispensible to each other.” Cyclical, continuous, and constant learning are trademarks of this approach.

Finally, while I possess neither the ethical abandon nor the anything-goes joie de vivre of a Rodney Dangerfield in my trip back to college, it’s been an incredibly satisfying as well as a demanding and valuable trip.