Monday, April 19, 2010

The end of 'College Age'

"The Shock of the Old: Welcome to the Elderly Age" by Fred Pearce, New Scientist, 8 April 2010.

Mature Students are a pain in the neck. Long ago, I was a postgrad demonstrator in a Friday afternoon mineralogy lab You could count on the regular students tearing through the work and being gone by 3pm. Not the mature students. They asked question after question - it was worse - far worse, than a PhD viva. At 6pm when the lab officially ended, you had to prize their eyes of the microscopes and chase them out the door.

There's going to be a lot more of them. Worldwide, the human race is having less children, and living longer. Countries like Japan lead the charge, but the rest of the first world will follow. Even countries like China won't be far behind. The economic and social impact of this change will be far reaching, perhaps the most significant change of the 21st century.

It's also probably the change Universities are best prepared for. Many campuses teem with life after the day students go home, as the second shift, evening students, pour in.

As ever, economics drives change where ideologies cannot. As the conventional 'college age' market has reached near saturation in the first world, universities seeking growth went for mature students. They are also seen as a cash cow. Where day students are often state funded or supported (in Europe), evening and mature students are typically fee paying, or, better yet, employer funded.. The older audience are in many ways easier pickings. They are more likely to be geographically tied by houses, jobs and children schools. This makes them less mobile, so it's much easier for a University to dominate it's physically local market. Their children might be able to travel and study anywhere, but they need somewhere close to the office.

The sheer scale of them will change the shape of Universities. Instead of having them looked after by an Adult and Continuing Education unit tucked away in a distant office, you might think of them as the core business and imagine a Day Student unit looking after the now unusual requirements of full time, first time, young adult students. The strange timetables designed on the assumption that students will be on the premises 5 days a week in ever shorter, seasonal terms will finally have to be let go.

Adults with jobs and children will want to pick of modules here and there over years, not put their lives on hold for several years to complete a degree sized chunk at a full time pace. Universities will need to look towards marketing individual modules, often tailored for local industries, rather than selling degree sized packages. In many cases, the adult learners already have degrees, and don't want another - they just want to learn a specific skill.

They won't be much interested much in the social side of University life. Where a first time student is interested in building the network of friends they will carry through their lives, or finding a spouse, mature students mostly have all that sorted out. They'll be pleased to meet new people, sure, but it's not going to be a big thing for them. Conventional student life can expect to wither and die unless it can reach out to the mature students.

Finally, older students learn differently. They are more outcomes focused, and don't suffer fools gladly. They know what time in class costs, both in money, and lost family time, and want to get the best out of it. Having worked in professional environments, they'll expect higher standards than the 18-26 years olds will, and they won't be afraid to speak their mind if they aren't getting what they are paying for. That might well be the biggest change of all.

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