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Back to School: Baby boomers have become the new seniors on campus.

Baby boomers and kindergartners in class together

Photo: Wayne Armstrong

Jackie Brown is 54. She has a part-time job. She has a mortgage. And tonight, she has homework: a case study paper on how to help a teenage girl who was physically abused by her father and who is now fighting depression and anxiety because she’s about to leave a foster home she’s known since puberty.

Brown wears a University of Denver sweatshirt and a smile. She’s happy. Very happy.

“When I’m in class and I’m asked to share my experiences, that makes me feel really good,” Brown says. “It makes me feel accomplished. I feel like my life and my dreams have collided; I’m just really happy.”

She has plenty to be happy about. Her dream and life are wrapped tight as a rope.

Brown, who grew up in Indiana, says she always wanted to live in Colorado, have a full-time, on-campus college experience and learn how to help the elderly. Today she has all three.

A couple of years ago, Brown began some soul-searching about a more fulfilling career. For most of her life she worked in management information systems technology in the steel and banking industries.

Then, last year, Brown heard from a friend about DU’s PROGRESS program (Providing Real Opportunities for Gero-Rich Experience in Social Work Services) for students interested in geriatric social work. She applied to the Graduate School of Social Work, was accepted, packed her bags, left her banking job and is now a full-time college student working on her master’s degree.

“A lot of the professors are around my age, which is nice. And the students have taken me in, too,” she says. “I just blend in with the rest of them.”

Boomers hit the books

Brown’s not alone. Baby boomers—those age 44 through 62—are blending in with their colleagues on college campuses throughout the country.

The U.S. Department of Education reports that in the last decade the number of baby boomers heading back to school has jumped by 20 percent to nearly 2 million. And officials predict those numbers will keep rising as boomers opt for books over bingo.

The trend is palpable at DU, which hosts 800-plus boomers today, according to the school’s Office of Institutional Research.

That’s not surprising to U.S. Census folks, who say Denver has a burgeoning baby boom population that will reach 300,000 people ages 55-64 in fewer than two years. Some have even dubbed Denver the boomer capital of the United States.

That may explain why over the last year the Executive MBA program at the Daniels College of Business witnessed the largest enrollment jump in its history.

The obvious question: Why are boomers going back to class?

Some want a promotion, a bigger paycheck or some kind of career change or advancement.

“Education is a lifelong process now,” says Daniels Assistant Dean Barbara Kreisman, Executive MBA program director. “It’s very apparent via research and reality that people need to garner new skills every few years nowadays to stay current in their profession or to be able to change careers as theirs may become outdated and irrelevant.”

Kreisman says Executive MBA students range in age from 30 to 65. “Even some of the older students have been seeking skills which could be applied in their next careers,” she says.

Karen Newman, a Daniels professor who has researched generational trends, says boomers aren’t the only generation to return to college after their teen years. “Previous generations often did it because, for one reason or another, they did not get a chance to go to college or get all the way through college when they were younger,” she says. Now, because of increased access to higher education, Generation Xers [those born from 1965 to about 1980] are more likely to return to college or go to college for the two reasons above rather than just to say they did it.”

Another phenomenon causing the return of boomers to the classroom, Kreisman says, is telecommuting—people who feel isolated working from their homes. “We have more and more students enrolling who say they not only need new skills, but they want to be a part of something —they want collaboration and stimulation they can’t get working alone.”

She adds that for many boomers, college played an important role in their lives during the 1960s. “As a result, there is data that shows many boomers are returning to the campuses to engage in more dialogue and learning,” she says.

But increasingly, boomers themselves are reporting that they want more than just more money or a spacious corner office. They want to make a difference. They want to tackle the big problems: illiteracy, poverty, race relations, child abuse and education.

Kreisman has seen the trend in her MBA students. “Absolutely, there are folks here who want to find value in what they do,” she says. “They’re seeking purpose because many have lived lives in a corporate environment focused on profits, and that left some of them unfulfilled.”

Seeking lives of meaning and purpose

What boomers really want is meaningful work, and more than two-thirds want to take part in lifelong learning, according to a 2007 study sponsored by the Rose Community Foundation, which gives grants for health, education, aging and other causes.

And another study from the Met Life Foundation and Civic Ventures, a nonprofit organization that focuses on issues of aging Americans, found that half of adults between ages 50 and 70 said they are interested in taking jobs now or in the future that help improve the quality of life in their communities.

Brown herself is an example of this growing network. She explains that a trip to the hospital kindled her need for more meaningful work.

A few years ago, she says, she took her mother to the hospital for a checkup and noticed an elderly lady there alone. “That just kind of stuck with me,” she says. “It was so sad; somebody needed to be with her. It’s just not right. We treat the elderly like all of the sudden they just appeared here, but they’re people. They have histories.”

Brown says her goal is to help the elderly through policy and advocacy. “I think that’s the way I can make a bigger impact,” she says. “Policy is the forum where the rules are made and where attitudes are changed.”

Lynn Gangone, dean of DU’s Women’s College, says she’s seeing more and more older students who are “truly interested” in changing the world through advocacy and are earning master’s and doctoral degrees in fields such as social work, law and education—”fields where they believe they can make a difference.”

The typical Women’s College student is a late-boomer born in the early 1960s, Gangone says. “They’ve grown up as women deeply engaged in their communities as volunteers. They understand that the achievement of the baccalaureate degree is not just for career purposes, but for life.”

And even though the bachelor’s of business administration remains the most popular degree at the Women’s College, Gangone says, the school is seeing more interest in the law and society major, which is tailored specifically for students interested in understanding how law matters in people’s lives, how people’s lives matter in law, and how law empowers and constrains individuals, groups, organizations and communities.

Tiffani Lennon (JD ’04), who teaches law and society, says many of her boomer students are passionate about affecting change and plan to use their degrees to do just that.

“Our students walk into the classroom with substantial skills, truly diverse perspectives and the passion to ignite change,” Lennon says.

Working for the common good

Back to that Rose Foundation study, which also found that boomers actively seek many sources—friends, the Internet, churches, nonprofits and colleges—where they can learn how and where to put their efforts to work for good.

And therein lies an opportunity, the study suggests, for organizations to develop a clearinghouse of resources. Perhaps a college could offer a series of courses to give individuals information they need to make informed decisions about options in community service.

DU is on the case. In fact, the Rose Community Foundation has given DU’s University College—which offers continuing professional studies for older students—a $5,000 grant to study what such a clearinghouse might look like and how it might work, according to Jim Davis, the dean of University College.

University College offers master’s degrees, certificates and an undergraduate degree completion program. But it also supports the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI)—a 600-member program that offers non-credit, eight-week classes for those ages 55 and “better”—and the Enrichment Program, which features short, non-credit courses on topics including literature, art, history, contemporary issues and science. Each session attracts about 900 students, many of whom are boomers.

The Rose grant, Davis says, is helping University College create a center for life transition that will match people’s civic advocacy interests with community resources and needs. Other center services will include skill courses so visitors can make an easier transition from an industry to the nonprofit sector. “They might learn about fundraising or project management,” Davis says. “We’ll design a series of courses to help these transitions.”

The college has applied for a second Rose grant to develop a ‘business plan for the program, and Davis says he expects the center will open by September 2009.

The Women’s College continues to stretch its welcome mat for older students by introducing academic certificates, including one in leadership that emphasizes social change and advocacy. The school is also developing leadership skills in students by placing them in area nonprofits.

“I believe that as we widen our certificate offerings and our scope of non-degree programs, we’ll see a lot more boomers at the college,” Gangone says.

A new take on retirement

To Davis, older students seeking to do good has a lot to do with the way they see retirement.

“I think boomers are thinking differently about retirement today; they aren’t going to settle for the old definitions of retirement,” Davis says. “They want something more—continue their employment, make lateral moves or move from work into volunteering. It’s a generation not content with stuffing envelopes. They want to make a true difference.”

That makes sense to Brown, who plans to graduate in June 2009.

“I could have stayed in my banking job and kept making money,” she says. “I was making good money, and I knew I was going to take a big pay cut in social work. And I like golf, and I have a retirement fund. But there’s more out there for me.”

Brown, whose course work involves several internships, worked with the local Alzheimer’s Association last spring. “I loved talking with senior citizens; there’s a lot of living history there.

“The way our society is today, it makes the world smaller. I think I can make a difference.”

She gives a short laugh.

“I was thinking, you know, it’s not going to be too long before I’ll be getting old—I guess it’s an investment in my own future, too. “

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