If retirement isn’t your thing just yet, what about … college?

Ashley Milne-Tyte Mar 24, 2023
Heard on:
Students in CU Denver's Change Makers program during an evening class. Nell Salzman

If retirement isn’t your thing just yet, what about … college?

Ashley Milne-Tyte Mar 24, 2023
Heard on:
Students in CU Denver's Change Makers program during an evening class. Nell Salzman

We think of college as a place you go to begin adulthood and ideally prepare yourself for working life. But more and more universities are offering programs to people at the other end of the career spectrum: adults in their 50s and 60s who may have finished one career but don’t want their parents’ retirements, and may want to use their past experience to give back to their communities.

It makes financial sense for schools to court this market: Fewer 18-year-olds are enrolling in college, while the number of people over 50 is steadily growing, and they often have money to spend.

Returning to school hadn’t occurred to Terri Harrington until last year when she found herself at an impasse. She has lived in Denver and practiced law there for decades. At 66 and divorced, she was torturing herself with questions about her future: Should she keep working in the business she founded? Move to live near her son and grandkids? Or maybe go back to her family farm in Nebraska?

“I don’t know if it’s like when you’re going to college and you’ve got to choose a major, but it is an unsettling feeling to not really know what the remainder of your life looks like or what you want to do with it when you have that choice,” she said.

Then, Harrington spotted a Facebook ad for a new program called Change Makers at the University of Colorado, Denver. It’s aimed at professionals at or near the end of their careers who want to repurpose their energies for what some people call their encore phase of life.

Harrington is now part of the program’s inaugural class of 17, which kicked off in January.

“I cannot tell you how much I’ve learned about people my age,” she said. “The processes they go through, the options they have.”

The class takes place two evenings a week. Some sessions are in person, others are online. Once a week the class features guest speakers over Zoom. Recently, author and Yahoo finance columnist Kerry Hannon was a speaker.

During Hannon’s talk, student Margie Yevara — a former accountant who now wants to develop affordable housing — asked her about business incubators.

“I’m wondering if there might be any that might be geared toward folks who are going to their encore career maybe?” she asked.

Hannon pointed her to a couple that she knew of.

CU Denver’s program is part-time. A semester costs $3,200. More established programs including Stanford’s and Harvard’s are full-time, run for a whole academic year and cost at least $50,000.

Some smaller schools say they’d like to start encore career programs, but they’re a risk.

Mark Canada is the chancellor of Indiana University, Kokomo.

Two hands rest closely together on top of a blue folder that houses loose papers and a notebook.
A view of a student’s notebook during a CU Denver Change Makers class. (Nell Salzman)

“We need to invest in the future, but it’s not something we can jump into feet first, because it’s an investment of time and of staff and frankly of money,” he said.

He added that in his region, there’s limited interest in these midlife programs — for now. Still, he said that within a decade he’d be surprised if there weren’t hundreds or even thousands of universities offering such programs, because there are so many older adults who want to keep learning.

Bernard Franklin is one of them. A longtime university administrator from Kansas, he’s now 69. After losing his wife to cancer, he spent two tumultuous decades parenting four kids and working right up until 2021 — “without a break,” he said. “Without stopping to say, ‘What is it I want to do?’”

Last year, he was a fellow on Harvard’s encore program, called the Advanced Leadership Initiative. Even after a career on a campus, he initially felt out of place.

“Harvard wasn’t created for an African-American man,” he said. 

But exchanging ideas with other fellows and immersing himself in classwork helped him get past that. One class in particular was about reflecting on your personal and professional life so far to help you decide what to do next.

“I wouldn’t have had that had Harvard not given me an opportunity to step back and really begin to see my story has my future purpose in it as well,” Franklin said.

He now leads a Boston nonprofit called Uncornered, which helps youth involved in gangs get out of a cycle of violence through education.

Franklin’s dad is 92 and his grandfather lived to be 104. With so much of life ahead, he said he’ll give back for as long as he can.

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