Back to School

More working, or no-longer-working, adults are upgrading their skills through higher education in the post-recession era

In this economy, it’s not just recent high school graduates who are flocking to area colleges and universities. “We’re seeing an increase in new students, but also current students who have increased benefits from their employers after being downsized or having their hours cut,” says Jennifer Opperman, director of Lakeland College – Madison Center. “They’re increasing their course loads to complete their degrees quicker and make themselves more marketable. They’re from all walks of life and every demographic.”
Most of the students at Lakeland College’s seven Wisconsin campuses are adult learners rather than recent high school graduates. “We were one of the first in the state to offer adult education specifically designed for students juggling work and home life issues,” Opperman notes. “Our program is different from many others in Madison. Our courses aren’t accelerated; they’re twelve weeks long, giving students more time to digest issues.”
One of Lakeland’s programs, BlendEd ™, allows students to determine each week whether they’d like to attend classes on campus or online. “They can plan around their schedules; it’s very student-centered,” says Opperman. “If life issues come up, they can participate online that week. Or if they’re having trouble with a particular topic, they can come into class and participate face to face.”

Clear Career Connections
At Edgewood College, interest in its programs for working adults has steadily increased over the past several years as well. “The programs with clear connections to career advancement have been most successful,” says Scott A. Campbell, Ph.D., dean of Edgewood’s School of Graduate and Professional Studies. “Our nursing and teacher education programs have seen the most substantial increases.”
The college has offered its “weekend degree” program, geared toward working adults, since the eighties. “Since then we’ve added three undergraduate accelerated degree programs, twelve master’s degree options, and doctoral programs in educational leadership” Campbell says. “More recently, Edgewood College has added several undergraduate and graduate certificate options as well as an intensive post-baccalaureate nursing program.”
Edgewood’s graduate programs in nursing, business, and marriage and family therapy have all seen spikes in enrollment since the economic downturn. “And for those without a bachelor’s degree, our three adult accelerated undergraduate programs in business, organizational behavior and leadership, and computer information systems have been popular options,” says Campbell.
The majority of Lakeland College’s new students are looking to change careers. “Many are coming back for a second degree,” Opperman says. “They might have a degree in psychology or something and come back for an accounting degree—that program has grown increasingly popular.”
She’s also seeing people who have business degrees enter Lakeland’s MBA program. “Quite a few scientists are seeking MBAs too,” she observes. “Some have completed their undergraduate degrees and can’t find jobs and others have been downsized. We’re also seeing people who fear they might lose their jobs and want to be more marketable if they get laid off, or they want to qualify for different positions at their companies.”

Tech Transfer
Opperman notes the recent influx of students to area technical colleges. “We hope to see some of them transfer into our four-year programs after completing two years at a tech college,” she says.
Edgewood, too, offers credit for prior learning at technical colleges or other accredited schools, along with courses that fit working adults’ schedules. “We have online options, and evening and weekend schedules, and eight-week accelerated courses in many of our programs,”
says Campbell. “Typically, a student can attend class one evening a week and earn eight credit hours per semester in those programs.” Both Lakeland and Edgewood incorporate more than the core subject matter into their courses, to give students the intangible skills today’s employers require. “More than ever, our corporate partners have indicated that they’re looking for strong critical thinkers and problem-solvers, individuals who can work well in diverse teams” says Campbell. “As a college, Edgewoods’ challenge is to continue to provide relevant, responsive, flexible, and timely programs that are in tune with the changing demands of our economy.”
The economy still has students concerned. “We haven’t felt that big sigh of relief yet. We hope it’ll come in the next nine months or so,” says Opperman, who predicts adults’ increased interest in higher education will persist. “It’s gained quite a foothold with working adults,” she says. “I anticipate seeing a continued increase in adults pursuing higher degrees so they can improve their skills and qualifications,” Opperman adds. “Then if we run into another economic time like this, they’ll be better prepared.”


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