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Preparing for Work in the Aging Economy: Colleges Adapt to Attract More Students

Kevyn Burger September 10, 2018

As colleges adapt to attract and prepare more students for a career in aging, the pipeline for graduates improves. But it is still lagging.

As college classes resume this fall, Georgetown University will welcome its inaugural class of students in a brand new degree: a Master’s of Science in Health and Aging. “The longevity market is a really exciting space with a great need for trained, educated professionals,” said professor Pamela A. Saunders, Program Director of the new GU program.

Saunders predicts the enrollees in the interdisciplinary program will be able to pick and choose between job offers in various sectors when they graduate. “We’re training the next generation of leaders, the problem solvers who will move into positions to find solutions,” she said. “There are so many businesses and agencies in the Washington, DC area who are already interested in them; I have more intern possibilities than I have students.”

While the longevity economy is surging, the number of students preparing for jobs across the field continues to lag. That’s why the nation’s colleges and universities are in the midst of a shift to attract more students to be formally schooled in aging—through majors or minors at the undergraduate level, certificate programs and graduate degrees in gerontology.

This pivot recognizes the appeal of aging studies to returning students in search of encore careers, and adapts existing college curriculum to expose more traditional students to the subject matter.

“While jobs related to aging have increased tremendously in the 40 years I’ve been in the field, the academic programs have not become as popular as people thought they would, given the demographics of the aging population,” noted John Cavanaugh, the president of the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area whose disciplinary expertise is in gerontology.

Cavanaugh is heartened that more colleges now offer courses with aging content within other academic departments. “They’re getting training in the basic disciplines and then can specialize in that sector as it is focused on older adults,” he said. For example, business schools have created coursework on marketing to older consumers, introductory psychology courses now include content about older adults as well as child development, and law schools are preparing students to specialize in elder law.

Gerontology professors find that a stealth approach hooks students on the subject matter. Elizabeth Bergman is chair of Ithaca College’s Gerontology Institute, which relies on an accidentally-on-purpose approach to present aging studies content to undergraduates.

“We’ve made a concerted effort to develop more aging-related courses, and we’ve overhauled some of our existing ones to make them more dynamic. Now these classes can check a box to satisfy the social science requirement for freshman and sophomores,” she said. “Students are exposed to the subject, we can often involve them in experiential learning with elders that breaks down their assumptions and stereotypes. We see students who suddenly find their passion and are transformed. It’s far more common for our aging studies majors or minors to come in this way than as declared majors.”

Bergman is a member-at-large of the executive committee of Academy for Gerontology in Higher Education and managing editor of Gerontology & Geriatrics Education, the organization’s scholarly journal. The theme of its most recent edition was how educators can influence the next generation to pursue gerontology careers.

“We need to retool and rebrand to reach students at the K-12 level. We are beginning to connect with high school guidance counselors to explain the potential careers for students. Most of them have no idea of the opportunities.”

Bergman calls gerontology’s breadth “both a blessing and a curse.” Students with gerontology degrees apply their knowledge in jobs in housing, business, finance, health care administration, social service and government agencies.

“If a student majors in education, there’s a clearly defined career. In aging studies, the options are far broader, but it can be an uphill battle to get students to embrace a major without a clearly articulated career path. With the high level of debt so many assume, there’s a lot of pressure on students to choose careers that will be lucrative and have a guaranteed income right away.”

Sigma Phi Omega, the international gerontology academic honor and professional society, offers encouragement and early professional development to college students through its 43 campus chapters.

“Students join to find mentors, network with people working in aging and for the prestige of having an honors organization to put on their resume,” said Pamela Brown, immediate past president of Sigma Phi Omega and a professor who teaches gerontology courses at Albany State University in Georgia. “This organization is another place where we can demonstrate the great opportunities in our field and make sure students are up-to-date with what they can do with a academic gerontology background. They see how they can integrate the study of aging to create their livelihood.”

Students arriving for Georgetown’s new master’s program are between the ages of 30 and 60. Many academic programs that offer advanced degrees in gerontology are pitching to mid career professionals. “Our candidates have been working in the corporate, nonprofit and government world. Most of them have held jobs that touch the aging population; they want the knowledge and credentials to be more effective or take the next step in their careers,” said Georgetown’s Pamela Saunders.

Saunders suspects the persistent obstacle to attracting students of all ages to gerontology is the stubborn bias of ageism. “We are challenged to reframe aging on a larger stage and as a social justice issue, for this generation and the next,” she said. “The issues associated with aging won’t go away in 30 years; the large population of millennials is the next bulge and they will overlap with the baby boomers. This is a problem for the next century and it’s global.”

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Kevyn Burger

Kevyn Burger is a freelance feature writer and broadcast producer. She was named a 2018 Journalist in Aging Fellow by the Gerontological Society of America. Based in Minneapolis, Kevyn is the mother of three young adults and one rescue terrier.

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