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Back to College with an Encore Education How Seniors Can Prepare for and Finance a Degree

A significant demographic transformation is taking place in the United States: By the year 2030, Census data predicts that 1 in 5 Americans will be over the age of 65 – and many may be considering college. As the U.S. population grows older, it’s fair to deduce that college and university students are likely to do the same. As this shift takes place, higher education institutions must step up to accommodate the unique needs of older students. The following guide takes a closer look at encore educations and their significance while also highlighting colleges and universities that are rising to the challenge. Readers can also find pointers on how to finance their degree so they don’t break the bank.

Encore educations cater to retirement-age Americans seeking postsecondary learning opportunities and are becoming far more common. The following guide takes a closer look at encore educations and their significance while also highlighting colleges and universities that are rising to the challenge.

Meet the Expert

Bianca Ambrosio Instructor and Writer

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Defining Encore Education

The word “encore” typically refers to an additional or final act at the end of a concert or theatrical production, and that definition is well-suited to the idea of an encore education. Bianca Ambrosio, a New York-based writer with experience teaching adult students, notes that encore students are “mostly adults who have finished raising their children and are looking to get back into the workforce or change jobs.” She continues: “These students may be at dead-end jobs, work night shifts or simply wish to become employed in a field or industry completely unrelated to their current one – some may even want to start their own businesses.”

Whatever their reasons, encore students are increasingly becoming more common on college campuses. Journalist Gregg Easterbrook noted in an article for The Atlantic that life expectancy at birth in the U.S. has risen approximately three months per year since 1840. At that rate, the average life expectancy at the end of this century will be 100 years.

Because of this, institutions must be ready for the uptick of aging learners. When considering the most common reasons someone might pursue an encore education, Ambrosio cites the freedom and flexibility afforded later in life. “An encore education is beneficial because adults can now go to college at their leisure, or even take classes online and begin a career that is more suitable for them and their needs,” she says.

Another reason is this set of learners is typically looking to build their legacy. Humans have a need to create something that outlasts them and, while this can exist in the form of being a parent, scientists say that it’s routinely seen in the later careers that adults take on. According to a study by adult education site Encore.org, two-thirds of adults aged 44 to 70 already engaged in encore work said they were “strongly motivated” by the desire to make a positive social impact. And for many individuals, they need a degree to reach those goals.

The positive social impact of one’s legacy can be a consideration for continuing education as a senior citizen, but some may be attracted to more immediate results. Ambrosio notes that some students are simply striving to improve their economic situation and higher education is the catalyst for that. “Many encore students are looking for better pay and more job security and the programs they study usually offer that,” she says. While these programs can help positively impact the social landscape, they also offer certifications and job training that can potentially increase wages for those students.

For whatever reason an individual decides to tackle and encore education, options abound. From online degrees to traditional four-year institutions, encore educations are increasingly becoming more available. When making the decision to continue education there are many details to consider — financial or otherwise. Finding the right institution is a good place to start.

Featured Encore Programs

Making sure that the institution and corresponding program fits the specific needs of these older, nontraditional students is paramount. There are many options to choose from, but as CEO and president of Encore.org Marc Freedman notes, “these individuals need adequate time and a secure zone to go from one mindset to another, while preparing for a period that could last as long as the middle years in duration and be just as significant.” Below you’ll find a list of institutions that cater to the needs of older students.

The OLLI (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute) at Aquinas College provides educational opportunities for those 50 and older. This program’s sole intention is to engage the lifelong learner through non-credit courses and culturally centered events and trips. With tiered pricing for membership dues, OLLI is aimed at any intellectually curious individual looking to participate with their peers. Students seeking a more traditional classroom experience can audit classes for $150 (with the professor’s permission).

The Calvin Academy for Lifelong Learning has the stated purpose of enriching the intellectual, cultural and social lives of seniors. At a relatively minimal cost, this regionally focused institution provides endless lecture series along with a bevy of field trips and cultural offerings. This program is open to anyone in the community who wishes to participate.

Supporting an intellectually active learning community of seniors is the focus at this Michigan-based community college. In addition to providing traditional college level coursework, the GRCC program also caters to senior-specific needs like caregiver resources, support groups and health and exercise programs.

The Advanced Leadership Initiative at Harvard is focused on harnessing the talents of accomplished individuals for the social good. Interdisciplinary in nature, this program was conceived to change the notion of retirement in creating a third stage of higher education. While preparing these accomplished participants to take on problems in the social sector, the program seeks to have this “third stage” be more fulfilling and have more of an impact than traditional income-earning careers.

Utilizing all that New York City has to offer, this NYU program provides a wide range of opportunities for the encore learner. From graduate degrees to professional certificates, this program is dedicated to providing a well-rounded education focused on the professional needs of students. With its size, range of degree opportunities and highly equipped faculty, NYU could be a great option for an encore education.

This relatively new program is focused on helping those “midlife and beyond” to explore their potential within nonprofits and the public service sector. Working to create an inclusive network of socially minded people, Pace seeks to arm their encore learners with the skills necessary to effectively encourage social change while introducing them to other likeminded leaders.

Life by Design NW is an encore-focused program facilitated by Portland Community College. By providing resources for encore careers and service, Life by Design NW strives to encourage “intentional life planning” with participants positively engaging in the community. Further, PCC offers frequent workshops and events that teach participants to handle the transition into this next phase of life with more confidence. PCC also strives to bolster encore entrepreneurs through their Small Business Development Center.

Based on area of interest and experience, the 50+ Encore Program at Rio Salado College seeks to certify eligible adults interested in teaching opportunities from K-12 to special education. The program offers three online certification programs that cater to the current career and educational status of each student.

The Stanford University Distinguished Careers Institute is the trailblazer for encore educations. In a partnership with the Stanford Center for Longevity, this selective program is aimed at highly successful professionals looking to make a positive social impact ranging from local initiatives to international projects. This year-long program utilizes all this elite institution has to offer with the intent of creating ongoing community dialogue that fosters social change.

Encore!Connecticut seeks to establish a pipeline for corporate professionals into nonprofit leadership positions. Shorter in duration, this four-month development program was created for the seasoned professional with the intention of harnessing the leadership skills they possess and shifting them to more socially minded endeavors. This program seeks to highlight the skillset differences between for-profit and nonprofit leadership with the hope of identifying transferable skills. Immersive in its structure, participants get hands-on experience working with local nonprofits.

In conjunction with LearningLife, Encore Transitions is a four-course series dedicated to helping retirees make the most out of post-career life. While focusing on things like satisfaction within their personal, professional and social lives is part of the goal, the program also zeroes in on matters related to health and finances.

Conceived through the UW Retirement Association, UW Encore directs individuals to volunteer opportunities that potentially utilize their skills. Like many encore programs, this one is focused on utilizing professional skill sets for the common good. In the services provided, UW hopes to funnel its institutional veterans into positions that can be most beneficial to society.

Financing Your Encore Education

Student debt in America is at an all-time high of $1.48 trillion as of early 2018 and growing steadily. Encore students aren’t immune to the rising costs of postsecondary learning, and it’s important for them to consider their options before taking out extensive loans or deflating their retirement savings account to pursue a degree.

Fortunately, there are several ways senior learners can finance their encore educations. Many schools now offer discounted or free tuition for senior citizens who want to enroll in or audit classes – or even complete a full degree. There are also scholarships and grants available via foundations, nonprofits, universities and the federal government to help further offset costs. The following sections shine a light on some of the best funding options while also offering expert guidance on where to find money earmarked for college.

Grants and Scholarships

Like other student populations, encore learners can take advantage of a variety of grants and scholarships aimed at empowering them in their educational aspirations. Encore students should think about their unique qualities when applying for funding, Ambrosio advises.

“In addition to applying for FAFSA and TAP grants, students should consider their history,” she says. “Do they come from an underrepresented cultural background? Did they serve in the armed forces? Are they a single parent? All these factors may lead to scholarship or grant funding.” Ambrosio continues: “PELL Grants and Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOGs) may also be applicable to them.”

Adult Students in Scholastic Transition

EWI of Columbus, Ohio, provides this scholarship to older students who are entering college or a trade school for the first time. It can also be used for students seeking to be retrained in a new field. Eligible individuals must live in Franklin, Fairfield, Delaware, Licking, Madison, Pickaway or Union County.

College Jumpstart Scholarship

This $1,000 scholarship is given to adult and encore students who are planning to use their education to better their family or community circumstances. Applicants must submit a 250-word personal statement based on a prompt.

The Ford Family Foundation ReStart Program

Residents of Oregon or Siskiyou County, California, are eligible for this scholarship, provided they are no more than 50 percent through a degree program and are working toward an undergraduate diploma. The scholarship covers 90 percent of unmet costs after all outside resources have been exhausted.

Newcombe Scholarship for Mature Women Students

Adult students who have already earned at least 60 credits toward a bachelor’s degree are eligible for this scholarship, which averages $2,858 in financial aid. Students should review the list of approved schools before applying.

P.E.O. Program for Continuing Education

This $3,000 grant is awarded to adult women students able to complete their educations within 24 months and aren’t pursuing a doctoral degree. Grant funds can be used toward courses, loans or other education-related expenses.

Return2College Scholarship

This $1,000 nonrenewable scholarship is given to adult and encore students who want to go back to a college or university to finish an educational program they previously started. In addition to meeting eligibility requirements, applicants must provide a three-sentence essay explaining why they’ve chosen to go back for their degree now.

Surety Bonds Small Business Scholarship

This unique scholarship is awarded to full-time, nontraditional students who also own a small business. To be eligible for the $1,500 in funding, applicants must submit a 500 to 1,000-word essay about how their time of owning a small business will help them in pursuing their current educational goals.

Walmart Associate Scholarships

Providing between $1,000 and $3,000 to each recipient, Walmart makes it possible for senior citizen store associates to receive funding that offsets the cost of their degree program. These scholarships are also renewable annually.

Free or Reduced Tuition

Many colleges and universities offer some form of tuition discount, waiver or scholarship to help encore learners meet their educational goals without going into significant debt. Oftentimes these programs have age requirements, which tend to range between 60 and 65 years of age. Some may also limit the number of courses degree-seekers can take per term or require them to meet certain GPA requirements. Remember that many of these programs only cover tuition, so students will need to have money on hand to pay for books, school fees and any other costs they may encounter throughout the learning process.

Residents of Texas who are 65 or older and have been accepted to the school can take up to six credits per semester free of charge – provided they meet certain GPA requirements.

Ohio-based Belmont College is home to a scholarship for Ohio residents aged 60 or older who are enrolled in regularly scheduled courses in the pursuit of a degree. This is a tuition-only scholarship.

Located in Fayetteville, North Carolina, Methodist University undergraduates who are at least 65 years of age can receive a scholarship to cover the full cost of their tuition.

Unlike other schools that don’t cover online learning in their senior citizen scholarships, MSU learners who are 60 years of age or older can take up to six credits per semester or 18 credits per academic year, free of charge.

This program provides a full tuition scholarship to applicants aged 62 or older who plan to study on campus. It doesn’t cover books, fees or tuition for online courses.

This tuition waiver allows eligible learners to complete graduate or undergraduate courses at the institution, but doesn’t cover fees or online classes. To be eligible, students must be 65 or older, a resident of Illinois and have an income that is below the stated annual threshold.

UWF makes it possible for Florida residents who are 60 years of age or older to receive a tuition waiver and attend undergraduate or graduate classes free of charge.

Alabama residents who are 60 years of age or older can apply for this scholarship, which covers all tuition, provided they are taking credits toward a program of study and have been accepted into an academic or technical department. No fees are covered by this scholarship.

Students who are at least 65 years old and live in the state of Kentucky can enroll in or audit undergraduate or graduate college classes free of charge with this scholarship.

Getting Started

Education expert Bianca Ambrosio makes clear that preparation is key when undertaking an encore education in a traditional college setting. Considering the time dedication necessary for completing coursework is critical as it may take some time to readjust to classroom life. “Traditional students are right out of high school and have already acclimated to the educational setting,” Ambrosio says.

She also points out that there could be some technological lag between what’s expected by a professor and how tech-savvy the encore learner is, suggesting that the student “keep up-to-date with (Microsoft) Word, PowerPoint and Excel,” and also be aware of what they don’t know.

The encore learner should also note that colleges and universities offer much more than just classes. Emily Brandon, a staff writer for U.S. News, states that it’s critical to take advantage of all these institutions have to offer. “Colleges tend to host speakers, concerts, politicians and sporting events, and local residents are frequently invited to take part.”

From auditing classes to simply using the resources of a university library, amenities are becoming increasingly available to baby boomers looking to scratch their intellectual itch. While a traditional education may be of interest, there are also innumerable learning opportunities aimed directly at seniors. From community college courses to the 120 Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes (located at colleges in all 50 states and D.C.), the chance for baby boomers to be intellectually and socially engaged is becoming more accessible.

Ambrosio says encore learners should remember they’re likely to feel at a disadvantage – at least in the beginning. “Professors of encore students typically have to work more closely with learners because they’ve probably been out of school for a long time and need more help getting acclimated,” she notes.

Though adult students may feel overwhelmed at times, professors are generally ready and willing to help them build confidence and courage. “Professors will do as much as possible to make sure their students are on track and passing, and that includes encore learners,” Ambrosio says. “Professors who teach encore students are under a lot of pressure in many ways because each student counts. They want to see you succeed and will help you to do so.”

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