Monday, October 5, 2009

The Need for Lifelong Learning

Noted community college leader Edmund Gleazer once wrote, “If you were to set out on a journey across the desert, you could not carry enough water to last the entire journey. It would make sense to have stations along the way where you could get water as you needed it. Education is much the same. Why should youth be expected to attain all of the learning they will need for their entire life? Why not have stations throughout life where one can learn as needed?”

Gleazer’s metaphor speaks volumes toward the importance of lifelong learning. So did a recent meeting I attended, where the New York State Office of the Aging presented to a group of community college presidents on the increasing significance of our aging population and the implications for community colleges.

The general trends are well known. More people are living longer, and the generations that follow are smaller. We also know that the economy is forcing working adults to change jobs and even careers. MVCC already sees this phenomenon in the stressed-out social worker turned chef; the retired firefighter in the nursing program; or the downsized assembly-line worker taking machining classes. A recent national survey by the AARP highlights the importance of community colleges for many of these people: out of 30,000 recent career changers ages 42 and older, more than one in four had taken courses at a community college as part of the process.

Although MVCC has more than 1,500 adult students 25 years or older enrolled this fall, much of our emphasis and reputation is anchored in the younger, recent high school graduate population. This is incredibly important and we do a great job to open our doors for about 30% of all high school graduates in Oneida County each fall, but we also know that by the year 2019, the population of high school graduates will be substantially smaller than it is today – requiring us to secure 37% of each graduating class to maintain our healthy enrollment.

Another 21% of Oneida County residents age 25 or older don’t hold a high school diploma. How can MVCC reach out and help these individuals chart a career path toward a more fulfilling life? Only 18.3 percent of our county's residents ages 25 and older have completed a bachelor's degree or more, compared with 27.4% statewide. What role can MVCC play in helping our community, which is rich in educational institutions, reap more of the benefits of lifelong learning? To borrow Gleazer's concept, how can we help our community members make it across the educational desert?

Whatever the answers are, they will require us to take a close look at making MVCC as welcoming as possible; as inviting and effective as can be; and home to programs and services that are responsive to the needs of individuals from every age group. We don't want people to stumble across us in the middle of a desert -- better for us to present ourselves to people in ways that are enriching and well received. We have what it takes to make these good things happen, but we won't succeed unless we address all age groups' needs more intentionally, sooner rather than later.

If you have any ideas on how MVCC can better serve adult students, let me know at presblog@mvcc.edu.