Retirees Back at School

Robyn Tellefsen | March 28, 2012

When you look ahead to your retirement years, what images come to mind? Will you be spending more time with the grandkids? Tending your garden and cooking mouth-watering meals? Sitting on a beach somewhere sipping Mai Tais? However you envision the ideal retirement, the reality may turn out to be a bit different than what you had in mind.

And the reality is this: Unemployment is high, home values are low, and retirement accounts are in the toilet. So for many of us, getting out of the workforce entirely just isn’t an option anymore. Last year, about 36 percent of workers said they expected to keep working past age 65, compared with 20 percent in 2001, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute.

That’s why a good chunk of the 78 million baby boomers entering their retirement years are heading back to school to boost their job skills. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of students ages 50 to 64 increased 17 percent nationwide between fall 2007 and fall 2009.

If you’re wondering where the 50+ set is going in droves, the answer is clear: community college. According to the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), 388,000 older adults were enrolled nationwide in fall 2009 – up 6 percent from 2007 and more than 12 percent from 2005. Nationwide, people over the age of 50 typically make up between 5-6 percent of community college enrollment.

Going back to school isn’t a death sentence for retirees, though. For many, it has breathed new life into their golden years and given them purpose that they’d been missing.

Just look at the students benefiting from the Plus 50 Initiative of the AACC, which is tailored to the needs of adult learners/workers. Through the Plus 50 Initiative, community colleges create or expand campus programs to engage the 50+ population in learning; training or retraining programs; and volunteer, civic, or service activities.

Michael Wright is one of these students. After working for 30 years in Washington State’s Department of Corrections at McNeil Island, he was left without a job last year when the island prison was shut down.

“I was down to $139 in my savings account, not knowing where my money was going to come from,” he says.

Fortunately, Wright discovered the aerospace composite technician program for military veterans at Clover Park Technical College (Lakewood, WA), and is now looking forward to starting a new career with Boeing or another corporate partner.

“This program is going to allow me to rise above being a feeder fish from the people above. I feel blessed,” he says. “I’m on a mission. I know I’ll succeed.”

–Robyn Tellefsen

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