DES MOINES, Iowa — Dorothy Frode enrolled in community college this fall, 50 years after she graduated from high school and facing the certainty that retirement wasn’t possible with only her Social Security income.
At age 67, the Dubuque, Iowa, woman made a choice likely becoming more common among older Americans: to return to college for more training, then seek jobs they intend to hold into their 70s or beyond.
“I have bills to pay. The lights, the gas, everything that everyone else has to pay,” Frode says. “I didn’t have enough money.”
According to the Iowa Department of Education, enrollment by students 55 and older at Iowa’s community colleges has increased by 300 students in 2010, to 1,661. That’s a rise of 24 percent over 2009.
They’re majoring in education and training, business, health science and information technology — all sectors that have been hiring.
“The fact that they’re registering majors indicates they are trying to achieve something,” says department researcher Tom Schenk. “If you’re going back to community college and just doing leisure, that won’t show up in those numbers. Those are noncredit enrollments, like the basket weaving kind of classes.”
The increased enrollment comes as Americans 55 or older comprise a larger share of the labor force — up to 19 percent in 2009, according to a report by the nonprofit Urban Institute. That’s the highest rate for older workers since the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics started tracking the data in 1948.
Older Americans, like other age groups, also are seeing historically high unemployment rates, with 7.3 percent out of work in August 2010, also the highest rate since 1948.
National enrollment statistics aren’t available, but some education experts say more seniors are enrolling in college for degrees they hope will result in secure jobs.
Dr. Bryan Cook, director of the Center for Policy Analysis with the American Council on Education, says he’s confident of an increase in older students enrolling in postsecondary education, but data isn’t available about what’s motivating them.
“My gut would tell me an increasing number of them are going to have to go back to school to get retrained because if they only had a high school degree and lost their job, chances are any other employment opportunities are going to require some sort of postsecondary education,” Cook says.
Brenda Dann-Messier, assistant secretary of the Office of Vocational and Adult Education in the U.S. Department of Education, says she thinks many workers who have reached their 60s without a college degree believe they can’t get a good job without more education.
“I have served folks who have never been to college, never had a high school diploma who are now aspiring to college because they understood that was the ticket for them to have a secure future,” she says.
Even with an enhanced education, it’s unclear how many employers will hire people who are in their late 60s or older.
Age-based discrimination is illegal, but 65-year-old Jeanne Liander, of Phoenix, says many employers seem to favor younger applicants.
Liander, a substitute art teacher, is taking classes at Rio Salado College to meet requirements to keep her Arizona teaching certificate. She needs to find a full-time position because her husband lost his job in 2007, their house is in foreclosure and they have been eking out a living on Social Security benefits and food stamps.
“It’s pretty grim,” she says.
Teaching jobs are scarce and the competition is fierce. She has had interviews at several schools in the Phoenix area, but no luck. Liander believes she’s more than qualified but feels her age puts her at a disadvantage.
“Age has been a barrier. I know it has been,” she says.
Melanie Holmes, vice president of corporate affairs for Manpower Inc., an employment services company, acknowledged older workers face skepticism from potential employers. But she contends that people in their 60s or 70s often bring experience and a strong work ethic to their jobs that younger employees can’t match.
And with college training, there is no reason to think older workers should be limited to low-skill jobs, she says.
“We’re making a mistake if we stereotype all 70-year-olds, if we say they’re qualified only to be Wal-Mart greeters,” she says. “It’s a mistake to think someone in their 70s won’t give (employers) their money’s worth.”
Frode, the Dubuque woman, says she decided to enroll full-time at North Iowa Community College after figuring out how to refinance her mortgage and keep her home. The experience led her to seek a two-year degree in social work, with hope of finding a job where she could help people facing similar situations.
“I’d love to be able to help these people and tell them that there’s things out there if you just look,” she says.