Thursday, June 16, 2011

Seniors and Seniors

Our population of seniors is declining, but our senior population is exploding.

Historically, high schools have been among our largest feeders. This should be no surprise. Over time, our enrollments have generally tracked fairly closely the enrollment of high school seniors in the area. The local high school senior population peaked two years ago, and is projected to decline fairly steadily for the next several years. By itself, that suggests some enrollment challenges in the coming years, especially as the shockwave of enrollments that accompanied the Great Recession gradually recedes.

The one demographic that’s really growing in this neck of the woods, and expected to continue to grow, is senior citizens. Historically, although we’ve usually had a few senior citizen students, they’ve formed a tiny percentage of our overall enrollments.

A few of us are starting to wonder if there’s a way to serve this new kind of senior.

The few senior citizens we’ve had as students have been well-received over the years. They take classes because they want to, and they bring life experience to class discussions. (King Lear reads differently if you have daughters.) They tend to cluster either in the liberal arts or in “I’ve always wanted to...” areas, like culinary. They’re much less common in criminal justice or business administration.

They get a significant discount, so they aren’t terribly lucrative, but as any political scientist can tell you, they vote at very high rates. There’s an argument to be made that having local senior citizens identify the college as having something for them can only be to our long-term benefit. They also frequently carry great weight as advisors within families; if Grandpa had a great experience recently at the local cc, the grandkids will probably hear about it. They’re also frequently well-connected within the community. In terms of building allies and community support, this is not to be dismissed lightly. Besides, since the mission of the college involves serving the community, there’s a clear upfront argument for serving the community as it exists.

The trick is in figuring out how to offer services in ways that make sense to more seniors.

Most of them aren’t looking for employment, or if they are, it’s along the lines of “I’ve always wanted to...” part-time jobs. They don’t have the focus on getting a good full-time job that the 19 year olds have. Some want to get degrees to prove that they could, but many either don’t focus on that or already have degrees.

I’ve seen one-off “senior days,” in which a college contracts with some local groups to bring a bunch of people to campus for a day of programming. At my last college, I used to participate in those every year, and they were wonderful. I’m hopeful that we can do that here, too. But a one-day event is a one day event.

I’m kind of casting about for ideas. Wise and worldly readers, have you seen an effective and constructive way for a college to provide services to a local senior citizen population? If you’ve been involved in something like that, what made it work? Did you learn anything that you wish you had known at the start?