How will the recession impact adult learning?

Dean of Metropolitan College Jay Halfond makes predictions for what the recession will mean for adult learning.  Metropolitan College’s focus is on the educational needs of working professionals; Dean Halfond offers commentary on what to think about when considering an adult education.


By Jay A. Halfond

As a dean of a large enterprise that focuses on the continuing education of working adults, I am constantly asked what impact this recession will have.  Will enrollments decline, because of difficulties paying for higher education?  Or are academic programs recession-proof, since the need for higher degrees doesn’t decline during a bad economy?  Will professionally oriented programs even increase their relevance in a precarious market?  Or will employees hunker down in their jobs, and forego college, to protect themselves from layoffs?

The glib answer is all of the above.  There is no single pattern that impacts every person and program the same way.  This recession will affect adult learning in multiple and even contradictory ways. I offer my suggestions on how to consider part-time education in a volatile environment.

The first question to ask is when to take the plunge.  An academic degree program takes a commitment of thousands of hours: commuting to a school, sitting in classes, studying, conducting research, writing papers, and taking exams.  Some will leap into an academic program during a poor job market; others will find they can’t afford to do so.  But you should go back to school based on a passion to learn, not just to get a degree, and you need to make your decisions based on the school and program you find most exciting, not only which is most convenient or least costly.

The second question is what velocity to consider.  Some will accelerate their study by taking more courses even while working full-time, to become more competitive all the more quickly.  Others will decelerate, as their work becomes more demanding or the cost of going to school too prohibitive.

The third question is what to study.  While those fields that are more career-oriented are likely to benefit during a recession, the simple truth is the degree itself and the overall reputation of the institution matter even more than the name of the academic program.  Getting a degree demonstrates discipline, capability, and maturity.  Almost half of all American adults who started a bachelor’s degree have yet to finish, and those with bachelor’s degrees earn about twice what those without degrees earn.  Completing an undergraduate degree should be the highest priority.
But the master’s degree – particularly in a highly educated metropolis like Boston – has become the new bachelor’s degree.   And there are now so many specialized fields available.  Students have choices beyond simply well-established degrees like MBAs. Programs that provide technical skills or a thorough understanding of a particular industry are likely to be even more successful in the years ahead.

The fourth consideration should be the mode of study.  Many institutions offer more than just classroom-based programs.  E-learning has become an engaging means of going back to school.  Some institutions offer “blended” courses, where classroom time is reduced while students work online between sessions.  And others offer true “distance learning” where all instruction and interaction occurs online.  But the buyer had better beware – the range of quality is phenomenal.  Unless the school provides adequate support for faculty and students, it is unlikely that these programs are comparable to those that are face-to-face.    Online programs with academic integrity require a major commitment even without the commuting; you have to be well-disciplined to keep up with the work without the reminders of weekly class sessions.

Fifth, prospective students need to shop carefully for the right institution.  You need to consider the overall reputation of the school, and evaluate who teaches in the program.  Is there an adequate supply of full-time faculty?  You need to consider cost, but think of this based on the overall cost of the program and not just the unit price per course.  You should ask whether the school has any means to help finance your program, and consult your human resources office to see if your company provides tuition support.

But, in the end, going back to school is a very personal decision.  Perhaps the best way to test readiness is to visit schools, sit in on classes, see if these are students you find engaging, and test the faculty for both their wisdom and enthusiasm.  The recession should be a wake-up call for what we already know:  Higher education matters.  That we live in a highly competitive world where what we know, what credentials we possess, and how well we think and perform all determine our happiness and our success.

(Jay A. Halfond is Dean of Metropolitan College and Extended Education at Boston University.)

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