A Modest Proposal to Save Higher Ed

It’s rare that two problems add up to a solution. But that could be the case with two problems that have been thrown into high relief by the Covid pandemic. One is the crisis in higher education brought on by changing demographics and widespread questioning of the value proposition of higher ed as defined by the four year liberal arts college; and the other is the wave of older Americans entering the “third third” of their Iives in a culture steeped in ageism.[1]

Colleges and universities are engaged in a lot of soul-searching about their futures, and they should be. Even prior to Covid, enrollment in colleges, having reached a peak around 2010, had declined by over 4%, and as of the end of 2020, enrollment was down another 3% for the year. Most worrisome was the drop in first-year enrollment, down an astonishing 16%, a decline that bodes ill for the future of college recruitment in general and will remain as an embedded revenue loss as that smaller cohort moves toward graduation. This is happening in parallel with a double-digit decrease in enrollment by international students, who tend to pay a much higher percentage of full rate tuition, room and board than the average undergraduate.[2]

Some of these declines are the result of broad demographic trends, some the direct and perhaps temporary result of Covid. But the higher ed paradigm, and the value proposition underlying it, were under assault long before the current crisis. Tuition costs and resulting student debt have skyrocketed without equivalent increases in graduates’ earnings. For private colleges in particular, the admissions process has devolved into a Darwinian, algorithm-driven competition for a dwindling pool of applicants.

Post-Covid, the higher ed landscape is likely to resolve into two camps, one composed of failed or gradually failing institutions, and the other becoming more secure and dominant as competition diminishes. It’s estimated that up to 40% of colleges will “struggle” or face “substantial market risk” going forward.[3]

What are existentially threatened colleges to do? Some are retooling their curricula to become more vocationally-oriented, some are going all-in on extravagant student amenities,[4] some are expanding their student bodies to increase revenue, and many are jettisoning standardized testing as a criterion for admission (though this last usually takes on the high-minded guise of reducing cultural and racial bias in admissions).

But the answer for many threatened institutions may be in plain sight all around them, though studiously ignored: retirees. A modest proposal: colleges and universities should actively pursue “post-career” adults as full-time, residential students.

The very idea may elicit a snicker, if not outright distaste. But that reaction is more a commentary on our deeply ageist culture than on the practicalities of the matter. People aged 50 and older make up 34% of the US population, and the number of Americans aged 65 and older is projected to increase by 65% over the next ten years. That’s a deep potential applicant pool, far larger than the one that colleges are currently cutting each other’s throats over.

Some of these older adults may believe themselves beyond the point where further education is needed or even desirable, but many more live their post-career lives in a way —through travel, reading, politics, the arts— that suggests not just an openness to new experience and information, but an active pursuit of it, now that they’re old enough to know what they don’t know and how much they’d like to learn it. And yet they are roundly ignored by higher education –except, of course, as alumni, to be exploited for their donations and volunteerism on trustee boards and student mentorships.

The potential benefits to colleges in pursuing and admitting post-career students are many and obvious, the first being a quantum improvement in institutional finances. Older adults are far more likely to be able to pay full freight than the families of teenagers, so competition for students by offering steep tuition discounts could be reduced. Endowments could be shored up by engaging seniors with disposable incomes and significant savings as students rather than (or in addition to) as charitable donors. Physical plants could be more fully and more profitably utilized, particularly in the summer months.

But beyond money, it’s clear that the current social model of the college campus is in need of a major overhaul. Preoccupied with promoting diversity and cosseting identity politics, colleges have completely failed to diversify along the one dimension shared by all of humanity, that of age itself. A student at the typical undergraduate institution might be exposed to fellow students of several different races, backgrounds and ethnicities and from multiple distant countries, but will rarely meet another student of an age more than four years different from their own. This is not actual diversity, much less a microcosm of the world, but rather a rigidly-formulated late-adolescent age ghetto modeled after the grade-school cohorts of childhood.

Perversely enough, that’s one of the traditional social selling points of college: a residential theme park where young people of like ages can mingle and begin to practice adulthood; a four-year waystation between adolescence and independent life. Peer-to-peer sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, for the most part blissfully unsupervised, right alongside your Proust and Poly Sci. All for a measly $60K per year, before the discounts.

Completely missing from this formula is exposure to older adults, with the exception of the odd faculty member who might have lived through the War in Vietnam and refuses to retire. She’s a charming relic, beloved for her persistence, but not someone you’d sit next to in class. Because there is no one of her age to sit next to in class, and it would be considered bizarre if there were.

But what if it were normal for young and old to co-exist in the college classroom, perhaps in the dorms as well? At the very minimum, vastly broader perspectives would be brought to bear on campus and in classrooms, diversity would take on a new and more realistic dimension, and the entrenched underpinnings of ageism in our culture – starting with the social marginalization of older adults – would begin to be dismantled. Young students anticipating leaving the academe for the real world would have newfound opportunities to learn from their post-career classmates what to expect, how they navigated jobs, family, mistakes and successes, in a setting free from the strictures and preconceptions of intra-family communication, which is the only communication with older adults most of them have ever known.

Colleges would no longer limit themselves to offering interested older people the status of informally “auditing’’ or “monitoring” certain classes on a one-off basis, sitting in the back of the room as isolated oddities drawing patronizing stares. They could become fully-enrolled students, with the same attendance expectations, major study requirements and performance standards as their young classmates, the same opportunities to meet new peers and, yes, to earn degrees.

Many retirees, removed from the decades-long ordering influence of their careers, face a crisis of purpose as they enter the “third third” of their lives. Many more, in retrospect, would have chosen a different course of study in their college years than they did, perhaps a different career entirely, have learned what they really want to learn, and desire more than ever to learn it.

Would recent retirees really want the burdens and challenges of re-entering the academe on a serious, fully-commissioned basis? Wouldn’t they prefer to remain amused dilettantes or detached patrons, rather than pay to re-live what for many was one of the most anxious and demanding periods of their lives? Or would they feel far better prepared for the opportunities and challenges of a college education than when they were young?

We don’t know the answers because the questions have never been seriously asked. Technically there is no age cap on applying for admission to most institutions, but neither is there anything like an active, systematic outreach to seniors. Some institutions may awaken to that opportunity in the coming years of collegiate contraction.

What might first third/third third college look like?

First, admissions criteria would have to be revamped to take into account the life experiences of post-career applicants. Prior formal education, including college or postgraduate records from decades earlier, might be viewed as irrelevant when compared to vocational experience, and would certainly become less meaningful than the academic performance of younger applicants. Curriculum vitae could be harder to evaluate than high school grade point averages and the occasional SAT score, but could be far more predictive of aptitude for age-diverse higher ed.

Colleges might initially inaugurate a summer session exclusively for post-career students, then integrate them into the student body proper on a year-round basis. Post-career students would no doubt have to be re-indoctrinated in student style — listening rather than pontificating, suppressing personal reminiscence and the instinct to refer to “when I was your age,” etc. — much the way campus language has been carefully modulated to avoid racial and gender slurs and cultural misappropriation (which shows it can be done).

Curricula might have to be modified to accommodate both the vocationally-oriented young and post-career students, while somehow avoiding de facto segregation of ages within the student body. Experimentation with course offerings that would bridge this goal gap would be key. Authority issues might arise between younger faculty and older students, but these could presumably be handled with the same grace and civility between consenting adults as often must be brought to bear in real life.

The traditional four-year undergraduate paradigm might have to be abandoned, or limits imposed to make sure oldsters who reach a certain threshold of credits make way for new old students. The “credentialing” feature of higher ed would obviously be far less meaningful to someone who has recently exited a career than to someone seeking to enter it, and this could pose motivational issues and even resentments, though it’s not only a problem of standard-setting but also an inspiration; post-career students would be perfect exemplars of learning for learning’s sake.

Healthcare on campus would have to address the needs of third third students, though many of them will have long since arranged their own health insurance and would continue to rely on it.

Athletics would probably have to remain limited to pre-career students, though there might be significant exceptions in non-contact sports like track, tennis – and of course golf.

Colleges have the educational infrastructure and, increasingly, the need; senior Americans have the money and the time. Some smart institutions that might otherwise face extinction are going to make the connection and begin to rethink what “higher ed” can mean.


[1] See L.R. Samuel, Aging in America (2017).

[2] See G. Paquette, “Can Higher Ed Save Itself?”, Chronicle of Higher Education (March 4, 2021).

[3] Ibid.

[4] See R. Lieber, “Brat House,” Town and Country (March, 2021).

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