The Path to Lifelong Learning

By Sara Hodon

Earning a college degree may seem like an unattainable goal but with more flexible program and scheduling options available to adult learners, receiving that diploma may not be as impossible as you might think.

Unlike traditional 18-22-year old college students, adult learners, sometimes called “nontraditional” or “lifelong learning” students,  have many more responsibilities beyond attending class and completing assignments — namely, work, family, and volunteering.  It would be easy to dismiss the idea of earning a degree simply because “I don’t have time to commit to college,” but

higher education institutions across the nation, and certainly in the Lehigh Valley, offer more programs tailored for the adult learner than ever before. If a student is ready to commit to working toward a degree, there is an institution in the Valley who is ready to work with them.

“Returning to school or entering college for the first time can be overwhelming for anyone; however, with the right support it can be one of the greatest life accomplishments to fulfill,” says Samantha Anglestein, Enrollment Outreach Coordinator at The Wescoe School of Muhlenberg College. “The reasons for returning to school are as varied as our students are diverse.”

A recent survey compiled by the US Department of Education reports that adult learners are the fastest growing educational demographic in the nation. The region is fortunate to be home to six private colleges and universities — Moravian College and Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Lafayette College in Easton, Muhlenberg College and Cedar Crest College in Allentown, and DeSales University in Center Valley — as well as state universities Penn State Lehigh Valley in Fogelsville and nearby Kutztown University in Kutztown, and two community colleges — Lehigh Carbon Community College in Schnecksville and Northampton Community College in Bethlehem Township.  These institutions offer a wide range of degrees, from a two-year associate’s or certificate to Ph.D.’s.

According to Deborah Booris, Dean of Lifelong Learning and director of the ACCESS Program for adults at DeSales University, adult students all have different goals. “Many of our students are looking to change careers.  Many are already successful but want to move up in their exisitng career.  And some come for personal fulfillment,” she says.  “The adult learners come in with a lot of experience already.  They’ve lived a lot of life and are much more mature than the traditional college student.”  If you’re considering enrolling in college, think about what you’re hoping to gain from the experience.  The end result will help you to decide on the best program for you.

Paula Hannam went back to college to pursue a new career.  Hannam has a full-time job at Lehigh Carbon Community College (LCCC), Schnecksville, but said she always saw herself doing something different.  “I always wanted my master’s degree and I always wanted to teach,” she said.  She is currently taking her prerequisite courses at LCCC and plans to complete her master’s in Education at Cedar Crest College.   Luckily, LCCC has a strong philosophy of educational and personal advancement, which has made Hannam’s journey a bit easier, but still more challenging than the average college student’s as she is juggling school with a full-time job and being a wife and mother (her children are eight and five).  “You have to find a balance,” she says.  “It takes a lot of commitment for both me and my family.  It’s very much a team effort.  My husband takes the role of both parents sometimes so I can do my homework.  And as an adult student you give up things like a social life so you can study.” Higher education institutions have taken a closer look at how to best attract and retain adult learners. Although nontraditional students have always been an important segment of the higher ed population, with more adults returning to the classroom due to recent economic conditions, admission professionals have had to get creative. Adult students name flexible scheduling as a top consideration in returning to the classroom, which has resulted in more programs offering many scheduling options — typically courses offered in the evening, weekend, online, or some combination of the two.  DeSales’ ACCESS program offers five bachelor’s degrees completely online.  “We have an enhanced course schedule that can help our students achieve their goals,” Booris says.  “We have some courses that meet one night per week, others are offered in a compressed schedule that meets three hours a night for eight weeks, and some have a hybrid schedule, so they’re part online, part face-to-face.  We have many students who just take one course per session if that’s what fits. We offer so many different flexible components.”

Lehigh Carbon Community College recently held two orientation sessions targeted specifically at adult learners.  Ilona McGogney, advisor at LCCC and one of the coordinators of the session, said that the turnout was exciting.  “Directed by two academic advisors with the help of two current adult students, the sessions were held in the evening from 5-8pm, and in spite of the heat and the time, enrolled students came from home and from work, and were entirely engaged, curious, and enthusiastic.”  The session touched on various aspects of returning to college, addressing some of the common anxieties and uncertainties that sometimes come with such an important decision.  McGogney said that at least 25% of LCCC’s student population is over 25 years old, and that the college is sensitive to the needs of the nontraditional student.

Cost is another major consideration.  Do some research on the schools you’re interested in and ask a lot of questions up front to ensure that your tuition dollars are being put to good use.  Like many traditional college students, it’s not unusual for adult learners to rely on student loans to help pay for their education.  But unlike some traditional college students, who can spend additional years on campus due to switching majors, adults usually know what they hope to gain once they enroll.  “The adult learner wants to learn as much as they can, and take the information right back into the workplace and use it,” Booris said.  “Adult learners really want to be here — they’re ready.”

For professionals looking to take their existing career to the next level, an MBA (Master’s of Business Administration) might be a good fit.  As William A. Kleintop, Ph.D. and Director of the MBA Program and Associate Dean of the Business and Management Programs at Moravian College, explains, although MBA programs have evolved to become a bit more specialized, the degree is still applicable to a wide range of fields.  “MBA programs are still about bringing students’ knowledge of business and business organizations to a higher level from their undergraduate knowledge without locking them into a specific business discipline.  An MBA affords students more flexibility in pursuing their careers than other professional graduate degrees,” he says.  “An MBA is often evidence that an employee is ready to take the next step into a leadership role at their place of employment or elsewhere.  In today’s business world, professional development is the responsibility of the individual.  Keeping up.  Looking ahead.  These are competencies that employers want in their leaders.  Earning an MBA is evidence of being one of those leaders.  Many employers will identify individuals as future leaders by their stepping up to enroll in an MBA program.”

The length of certain degree programs varies.  An associate’s or short-term certificate program can take anywhere from 18 months to two years to complete.  A standard bachelor’s degree usually takes four years (although some programs offer their courses on compressed schedules), and a master’s or Ph. D. program can take anywhere from two to four years to complete, depending on whether the student attends full-time or part-time.  Although it can be a challenge to fit college classes in between an already overloaded schedule, most students who have taken the plunge would agree that it’s been worth it.  “I’m more committed as an adult but it’s harder because of work.  But it’s been very fulfilling,” Hannam said.  “My classes are intellectually stimulating, and it’s brought that love of learning back into my life.  I think schools are more in tune with the adult learners — they’re catering more to this market and there’s more awareness of our needs.”

Sara Hodon is a Schuylkill County-based freelance writer, English professor, and graduate student.

Follow @LehighValleyMarketplace on Instagram