Today, many professionals are heading back to college at career’s end.
For many successful professionals eyeing retirement, the ideal way to spend their final working years is to scout Caribbean real estate or monitor their investment portfolios. It’s a life-order tradition that took root after WWII: college, career, golf course.
But today, more people at the top of their fields are bucking that modern-era stereotype. Instead of preparing to wind down and relax, increasing numbers of Baby Boomers are spending the traditional end of their careers back in the classroom. Just as one degree primed them for career success, they believe another round of higher education will help them master their interests in retirement. And this time, earning isn’t part of the equation. It’s all about the learning.
Heeding the Urge to Explore
“At this point in life, the share of my mind that was occupied by wanting to earn money for the sake of purchasing things is gone. I’ve gotten all the stuff I need, and I’m investing in things that will have a long-term impact,” says Mary Koppel, 51, a Ph.D. candidate in Communication Studies at the University of Minnesota and an assistant vice president at the school’s Academic Health Center. “Once I made that mental switchover, I had a different way of looking at things, and I saw how much I could do in an educational setting.”
But Koppel’s experience is far from unique. Darlene Goetzman, a partner at Global Learning Partners, an adult education consultancy, says those who hit the books again often do so because they have enough financial security and free time to let them heed their inner callings.
“In different stages of life, we have different priorities,” says Goetzman, who earned a master’s degree in 2001 at age 41. “People in their 20s and 30s are busy building a professional reputation and providing a lifestyle for their families. It often isn’t until their children are grown and they feel settled in their careers that they have time. As that time opens up, the urge to explore opens up as well.”
That’s how Tommy Hills, 63, decided to return to school. After 36 years as an Atlanta banker, he retired in 2001 and quickly set his sights on compiling a history of banking in Atlanta. He took a history class at Georgia State University to learn how to research and write history and enjoyed the course so much he decided to pursue a master’s degree. But his plans changed in 2003, when he accepted an appointment as chief financial officer for the state of Georgia.
Despite the new job’s demands, Hills kept up with his coursework. He graduated in 2006, and his thesis on interstate banking was published by the North Carolina Banking Institute Journal.
Making It Work
While both Hills and Koppel found their back-to-school experiences worthwhile, neither one said it was easy balancing the time demands of their degree programs while also working. In fact, Koppel currently is taking a year off from coursework because staffing shortages in the university department she manages forced her to spend more time at the office. Hills was able to juggle work, school and family while completing his master’s degree, but had very little time for friends while he was in the program.
Koppel thinks she is better equipped now to handle the unexpected sojourn than she would have been when she was younger. “Age gives you patience and provides a sense of perspective that allows you to move forward in a more deliberate fashion,” she says. “You can take a long view.”
That experience also plays into how much adult learners glean from their classroom experience. Goetzman says older adults are more likely than traditional college-age students to try to figure out how to apply what they’re learning as they go, rather than simply memorizing facts. Their conversations and interactions with instructors and fellow students, which Koppel found especially rewarding, are the key.
“It’s wonderful and exciting to sit with students from all these different age groups and talk about a book or a journal article,” she says. “So much of what I do at my job is produce, produce, produce. It’s kind of fun to think out loud, and it’s an opportunity to use a different part of my brain.”
Since graduation, Hills has been working on another new project — collecting oral histories from the
people involved in a conservative shift in Georgia politics. Being a historian who also is a state official gives him easy, personal access to his sources, a unique combination that aids his research. It also fuels his passion for writing, a pastime he plans to continue after he retires a second time.
“This degree opened up other avenues for me,” says Hills. “I could work in a history museum. I could teach. Whatever I choose, I have the skill set to research and record all this material. And my experience has given me confidence that somebody might find what I’m writing worthwhile.”
Koppel, too, foresees more research when she completes her master’s degree — and maybe a second career as well.
“Fortunately in our society, there’s no longer a sense you can only be productive from 21 to 62,” she says. “Playing cards in a retirement village holds no interest for me. I want to be engaged as long
College towns are becoming the new place to retire.
Rather than strolling the hallways of retirement homes, today’s post-careerists are just as likely to stride through campus building corridors or pump iron alongside students one-third their age. And they are moving to towns that once were the exclusive environs of the twenty-something college crowd, often to universities where they matriculated decades earlier.
According to polls of nearly 1,500 adults aged 53 to 72, as many as 72% said they would be interested in living on or near specific college campuses. That’s one conclusion of an updated survey conducted by three colleges* in conjunction with Massachusetts-based Campus Continuum, one of a number of new firms specializing in creating residential active adult communities near universities.
The communities the 2½ year-old Campus Continuum envisions — they expect to break ground on the first ones in mid-2008 — differ markedly from continuing care or assisted living facilities that offer health care and other help. Instead, these are geared toward healthy younger retirees who want intellectually stimulating environments as well as rich social and volunteer opportunities.
“They may be looking for a retirement experience different than in previous generations,” said Gerard Badler, Campus’ managing director. “They don’t want to just vegetate in front of a television.”
Campus Continuum works with host colleges to create communities offering faculty-level access to university facilities and programs. Residents can, for example, audit college classes, exercise in the fitness center, scour the library shelves, cheer the sports teams and attend theater events. A “Dean of Programs” organizes resident programs. The townhouse or condominium communities often are designed with common areas, such as a great room and cafe that are conducive to group meetings or discussions among residents.
“People like being able to take [a class about] Voltaire in the morning and talk about it in the evening” in a common area, Badler said.
The residents and companies arranging the communities are not, however, the only beneficiaries. The universities gain additional revenue from land sales, rentals and fees. The towns see new construction and taxing opportunities. And the college students benefit from the willingness of active seniors who mentor and volunteer their expertise. “The whole notion of a university-affiliated retirement community is very new, and the idea of a 55-plus active adult community [at a university] is even newer,” he added. “I suspect both trends will boom over the next few years.”