Robert Draper, an instructor, helps Ruth Butler log in during a computer skills class Feb. 11 at Central Texas College. Draper teaches the course for the Department of Continuing Education’s lifelong learning classes, which provide lessons for students age 50 and older.

By Chris McGuinness
Killeen Daily Herald

When Robert Draper walks into his classroom at Central Texas College each week, the students aren’t the average teenagers and twentysomethings. They are his peers.

“It’s gray power,” joked Draper, 65. “It’s actually pretty nice because we can all relate to each other.”

The Copperas Cove resident teaches a course in computer basics for the Department of Continuing Education’s lifelong learning classes, which provide lessons for students age 50 and older. Courses range from instructional, such as Draper’s class, to recreational, such as water aerobics.

“I was a little nervous and worried when I decided to take the class,” said Ruth Butler, a 50-year-old Copperas Cove resident. “Having a class with people around the same age as me definitely helps me feel more comfortable, and I was more willing to ask questions.”

Higher education institutions across the country might see more students like Butler in the future as the population of older Americans grow dramatically in the coming decade. Data from the 2010 census identified more than 98.6 million Americans as age 50 or older in the United States. The same data also showed that the number of Americans who were 65 and older increased by 15 percent in the last 10 years.

In Texas, roughly 2.6 million residents are 65 and older, according to the 2010 census. In Bell, Coryell and Lampasas counties, the 65 and older population is nearly 36,000 people.

“These numbers represent the very edge of the baby boomer generation beginning to move into that age demographic,” said Rafael Ayuso, spokesman for the Texas branch of the AARP. “For the next 18 years, there will be 10,000 baby boomers every single day reaching age 65, and by 2015, boomers will represent about 35 percent of the total population.”

With such staggering population growth, Ayuso said it wasn’t surprising to expect colleges to see more older students or for schools to court them more actively.

“This is going to be a generation of Americans that isn’t going to just sit back as they get older,” said Ayuso. “They want to get out, be active, continue learning and stay engaged.”

More marketable

The reasons older Americans come back to college vary. Some enroll for pleasure or to study a subject that interests them. Others, like Butler, see college courses as a pathway to employment in a tough job market.

“I’m looking for a job, and I know that having good computer skills is going to be very important if I want to get hired,” said Butler, who has been looking for work for more than two months. “I hadn’t been back to school since 1979, but I wanted to better myself and have a better shot at a good job.”

Teresa Chavez, director for the community college’s continuing education program, said that Butler wasn’t alone in her desire to acquire marketable job skills.

“Because of the economic situation, you are seeing more people trying to come back into the workplace,” said Chavez. “In some cases, they may lack certain skills because they used to be in a whole different line of work.”

While some older students are returning to college for job-hunting enhancements, others want to get better at the jobs they already have.

Jack Welch, longtime Copperas Cove High School head football coach and athletic director for the school district, is currently working toward a doctorate degree in educational leadership at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor.

“Education refreshes a person. It doesn’t matter what business you’re in,” said Welch, 54, who also earned a master’s degree and several professional certifications during his career. “It’s not really about age. It’s about keeping up-to-date with what’s going on and continuing to grow yourself in your profession.”

Feel young again

Unlike Central Texas College, Mary Hardin-Baylor doesn’t have any courses or programs specifically for the older population. The university had 21 undergraduates over age 50 during the fall 2011 semester, according to enrollment demographics from the school’s admission’s office. It also reported 22 graduate students in the same age range, including doctoral students like Welch, who said he didn’t mind that there weren’t classes specifically for his age group.

“It makes me feel young, like I’m 20 or 25 again,” said Welch. “I’m a life-long learner, and if I’m still in education when I’m 60, I’ll still be out looking for ways to improve myself.”

Regardless of the reasons for seeking higher education, Ayuso said colleges and universities need to take the needs of the growing older population in account to court them.

“Colleges need to listen and find out what the people of that demographic in their area are interested in,” he said. “The programs and classes can be a reflection of those needs, just like any other group of students.”