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Older students find it's never too late to go back to school

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Chris Plance, 43, is principal management consultant at Datus, a Jersey City technology consulting firm that focuses on health care businesses. He has a bachelor's degree in computer engineering from the University of Pittsburgh and worked in that field for about 12 years.

Two years ago he enrolled in the Rutgers Executive MBA program, he said, “because I felt I needed a better understanding of how macroeconomics, financial instruments and markets influence the world we live in. My background as an engineer gave me the tools to identify and solve problems, but a lack of understanding about how money works in the world was preventing me from seeing the world from a financial perspective.”

Mays Landing resident Maynard Harris retired as a master sergeant in the U.S. Air Force in 1998 after a 20-year career, and went to work for Lockheed Martin as a systems engineer. But in 2012, after more than a decade with the global security and aerospace company, he was downsized. Today, the 57-year-old veteran is in the home stretch of earning a bachelor’s degree in business management from Galloway-based Stockton University, and he plans to pursue an MBA.

People like Plance and Harris didn’t follow a traditional trajectory when it came to higher education, yet they now represent the face of the latest generation of executive education students.

In 2006, the average age of EMBA students was 36.5, according to the Executive MBA Council, an industry organization. Four years later it crept up to 37.1[MD1], In 2017, it was 38 [MD2]. Educational institutions understand the trend, and have implemented programs to accommodate these “nontraditional” students.

Juggling careers and education

Thomas Edison State University in Trenton, for example, has an academic model that allows “working adults to complete undergraduate and graduate degree programs without the need to be in a particular location at a specific time,” according to Mary Ellen Caro, vice president for enrollment management and learner services.

The average age of undergraduate students at TESU is about 35, added Caro. More than 50 percent are millennials, some 35 percent are Gen-Xers and the rest are more than 50 years old, she explained.

Engaging with ‘nontraditionals’

Anne Hewitt isSeton Hall University’sMaster of Health Administration program director and professor, and director of graduate studies for the on-campus and online MHA program.

“I’ve been teaching graduate programs for 20-plus years, and while our core continues to be students who go directly from undergraduate studies to graduate programs, many more individuals are returning when they’re older,” she said.

At Seton Hall, the average age of these returning students is 28, although they range up to about 45.

“There’s diversity in their perspective,” Hewitt said. “For the younger ones, the grade point average is everything, while the older students are here to learn skills they can use at work.”

The university tries to accommodate those who work full-time, offering a nix of late afternoon and evening classes as well as online courses.

“Most employers are very supportive, but our students have to be sure someone’s there to cover them at work, especially in the health care segment. So we’re sensitive to those situations,” she said.

Many come back, according to Hewitt, because they find a substantial number of professions require a master’s degree.”

Kathryn Hipschman, 51, is among the latter. She works full time at the K. Hovnanian Children’s Hospital in Neptune as a business analyst. Hipschman has an MBA, but after spending 10 years at home raising a family, she enrolled at Seton Hall in 2016 — while working part-time in health care — to get an MHA. She previously earned an MBA and sees the MHA, which she expects to complete in the spring 2018, as a way to advance in her field.

“The MHA program offers me the flexibility I need to balance work and personal responsibilities,” Hipschman said. “Most of our coursework is online, with three required intensive weeklong residencies at the university. As a nontraditional student beginning a second career, Seton Hall has provided me the education and support to navigate a new career.”

“Many TESU students have careers and family responsibilities,” she said, adding they  appreciate that many of the programs are delivered completely online. In many cases, she said, executive education represents a second chance, since “life got in the way” of finishing their degree the first time.

Something like that happened to Carlye Lamarca, a 38-year-old program specialist for the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development in Trenton.

“My dream to earn a college degree was always at the forefront,” said the mother of two, who earned a B.S. in homeland security and emergency preparedness in 2016 while working full time, and is now working on her master’s in public service leadership. "I selected TESU because the online course delivery was more conducive to my lifestyle — I’ve never had to set foot in a physical classroom — and it didn't take me away from my growing family.”

During a typical day her husband, Michael, helps Lamarca with chores.

“I start on my homework at 9:30 p.m. after the kids are in bed, then I’ll typically stay up till midnight on the assignments,” she explained. “But I make sure there’s time for my family.”

Her employer helps with tuition costs — more than 45% of EMBA students have to pay their own way, according to the Executive MBA Council [MD3] — but even if it didn’t, she said she still would have signed up “because it was something I always wanted.”

Achieving a dream

Older students often return “to finish a dream of graduation that was delayed by marriage and children,” noted Stockton University Associate Director of Academic Advising Paula Dollarhide.

“Many times, a student needed to leave college for economic reasons or maybe there was service in the military,” she said. “Our veteran population brings adult students who may have had a few courses while in the military, but mostly they are starting as a freshman. Some older adults have had a career that did not need a college degree and it is a dream to go to college strictly for the joy of learning.”

She pointed out the age range of these nontraditionals “is all over the place,” from the 20s to the 70s. “I helped one student graduate at age 75,” she said.

Stockton has many classroom-based courses, but “we are having more online courses to help students of all ages,” added Dollarhide. “Most older students enjoy the face-to-face courses better because they aren’t as comfortable with the technology.”

Flexibility and other trends

Students who sign up for an MBA at Rowan University in Glassboro aren’t locked into a full-time or part-time programs, said Sue Lehrman, dean of the university’s William G. Rohrer College of Business. For that matter, they can take a fully online MBA, or a 24-month hybrid program at Rowan’s Mount Laurel campus, which provides on-site and online course options.

“When they were first introduced, students had to be convinced that online programs were indeed effective,” she recalled. “Research shows that they are effective, and the academic community has embraced the concept. Today, online courses are popular, and our flex program shows that the modalities can be integrated.”

Most of the part-time MBA candidates at Rowan hold down a job, Lehrman noted.

“We get people from every industry: finance, human resources, health care, pharmaceuticals, supply chain and others. They can flex between modalities at will, even between full-time and part-time. So if they have to engage, say, in a lot of business travel one semester, they can take more or fewer classes as needed. Our programs are a lot more flexible than the ones typically offered.”

Lehrman, who has been involved in higher education since 1992, including serving as a dean for 18 years at various institutions, says enrollment in MBA programs tends to be counter cyclical.

“Enrollment usually bumps up when there’s an economic downturn, and when the economy’s doing better, enrollment usually dips a bit,” she said.

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