With more and more postsecondary institutions offering some type of online coursework, Americans are embracing online education in record numbers. “The Internet has changed us,” said Dr. Gwen Hillesheim, the Vice Provost of Colorado Technical University. “There is access to information for career changers that we never had before – now career changers have the world at their fingertips; they have choices.”
Research conducted on behalf of Career Education Corporation found that 35 percent of current higher education students are career changers. “There has been a large growth of students over age 25,” said Bilita Mattes, Associate Provost for Strategic Markets at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology. “It is the fastest growing segment in higher education.”
“Someone who is 45 years old doesn’t have the freedom to stop the world and go back to school full-time.”
Many of these students are taking advantage of online education to prepare them for new careers because the medium offers students both convenience and flexibility – two important factors for older students who have family and financial responsibilities. “Someone who is 45 years old doesn’t have the freedom to stop the world and go back to school full-time,” said Hillesheim. “Education has to fit into their lives – it has to fit into their families,” she said.
The Changing Workplace
Although the growing availability and acceptance of online education is one contributor to the increased number of career changers in school, it is not the primary factor, Mattes said. “The nature of work has changed – there has been a shift in job demands that has put a greater emphasis on decision-making and cognitive skills,” she said. “We live in a global, technology-centered society, which is much different from 10 or 15 years ago.”
This shift from a manufacturing-centered workforce has been an important driver in the increased number of career changers in higher education. “It is important for adults to re-tool to meet the changing needs of the workplace,” Mattes said. “Employers are seeking second-career workers.”
The Advantages of Online Education
The flexibility and convenience of online education makes it an appealing choice for career changers because it gives them the opportunity to study at home and work around jobs and family responsibilities. “Career-changing adults are still working and have a finite amount of time for school,” Mattes said. “There is a lot of juggling for adult learners. One big advantage [of online learning] is flexibility.”
“Many people expect online education to be easy, but that’s not the case.”
Online classrooms are usually asynchronous learning environments, which allows students to schedule classes around their other responsibilities, said Shelley Dixon, Associate Dean/Director of Outreach at the Center for Distance Learning at Empire State College. “Students can log in after the kids are in bed at night, or after their work shift ends.”
Although this flexibility and convenience can make it easier for career changers to go back to school, prospective students shouldn’t assume that the courses will be easy. “Many people expect online education to be easy, but that’s not the case,” Dixon said. “Students are expected to take responsibility for getting their work done. They must be able to manage their time and be self directed.”
Hillesheim agrees.“There needs to be time invested in school,” she said. “Students need to make it fit into their lives.”“Students try to be all things to all people and we set ourselves up for failure,” Hillesheim said. “We want to do everything – we have to set boundaries and create rules to manage our time and responsibilities.”
Online education is a great way for busy adults to fit learning into their schedules, because they won’t be taking time away for attending classes, Dixon said. She cautions that students should still expect a rigorous program, however. “Students should expect to spend 10 to 15 hours a week studying – that’s what people forget about when thinking about going to college,” she said.
“I recommend that students take a course or two to see how it goes – particularly if online learning is foreign.”
According to Hillesheim, there is another important advantage of online education that is often overlooked – the tight-knit community of student learners. “It doesn’t matter what time zone they are in, these students create their own cohort of friends who support and encourage them.”
Deciding Whether Online Education is a Good Fit
Career changers who have been out of school for a while should take a few online courses prior to committing to a full course load. “It does not need to be an all-or-nothing decision,” Mattes said. “I recommend that students take a course or two to see how it goes – particularly if online learning is foreign.”
Dixon gives a similar recommendation to her students. “Online education is not for everyone,” she said. “We have a number of non-matriculated students at Empire State who are enrolled in a single course. It lets them see if they like it, while earning credit they can use at the same time.”
Before enrolling in an online program, Mattes suggests that students do an in-depth search into the experience, skills and responsibilities of their new career. “They need to get a good sense of what they want to do – they need to spend a sufficient amount of time preparing for a career.”
“There is an obligation on adult students,” Hillesheim said. “Educators assume you know what you want.”
There are…more and more degree programs geared specifically for adult learners.“Students also need to make sure that the school has services in place that support adult learners,” Mattes said.
Career Changers – A ‘Tremendous Asset’
It is not uncommon for adult, non-traditional students to be hesitant to return to school and feel as if they will be out of place in a higher education classroom. There are, however, more and more degree programs geared specifically for adult learners. At Empire State College, for example, 80 percent of the student population is older than 25. “We can only assume that the majority of these students are either changing careers or looking to improve their current careers,” Dixon said.
“These are not the non-traditional students anymore,” Hillesheim said. “They are the traditional [students].”
Mattes regards these students as a tremendous asset to the classroom. “They know a lot more than they realize,” she said.
Another asset is their honesty and willingness to share wisdom, Hillesheim said. “They don’t care so much about what others think about them, so they are much more apt to speak out in class.”