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Academia charts a new course

Jamie Siebrase //December 1, 2014//

Academia charts a new course

Jamie Siebrase //December 1, 2014//

Lifelong learning is no longer just an exercise for the intellectually curious. Increasingly, it’s a matter of career survival, or at least advancement.

“In the good old days, you graduated college, went to work for a company and could expect a 45-year career,” says University of Phoenix’s Kent Blumberg, Colorado campus director of academic affairs.

Today, employees are rewarded for capabilities, not credentials, writes George Leef, research director at the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy. “Especially in this skills-based economy we work in,” adds Galvanize gSchool CEO Jim Deters. “Learning is a continuum process where you can build a la carte skill sets.”

Between 2001 and 2011, post-secondary enrollment increased 32 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. During that period, the increase in the number of students over 25 (41 percent) was larger than the increase in the number of students under 25 (35 percent), and the number of part-time students rose 23 percent.

As the demand for education increases and more working professionals seek continuous development, local schools have adapted accordingly. The result is a lot of options. “With so many choices, the important thing for adult learners is identifying their goals,” says Michael McGuire, Dean of University College at the University of Denver.

Academia Absorbs Adults

At the University of Colorado Boulder’s Division of Continuing Education, some students want to change careers, says Assistant Dean Armando Parés. “But there are even more folks who want to pick up skills,” he says. Students garner skills to advance their careers, boost earnings and increase job security. “It’s also about job satisfaction,” DU’s McGuire adds. “Because our students are, on average, 36 years old, they have more perspective on how careers fit into their lives.”  

The University of Phoenix’s national career and education survey of more than 1,000 working adults corroborates this, having found nearly half of U.S. employees gain equal or greater feelings of self-worth from their jobs as they do from their personal lives. And 54 percent of working adults think pursuing additional education will amplify self-worth. “Our identity is tied up in our jobs, and education plays a part in that more than it ever used to,” Blumberg says.

What about employers’ wants and needs? Mark Reilly, senior vice president of JE Dunn Construction, said he values hard skills honed at trade schools and community colleges. “There are serious labor shortages among skilled workers,” Reilly says, estimating Colorado lost 30,000 construction jobs during the economic downturn.

“We reach out into the technical fields in several different ways,” says Rebecca Woulfe, academic dean at Arapahoe Community College (ACC), where open-access, two-year, 60-credit-hour degree programs prepare students to do one thing: work. Classes are small, generally capped at 35 students. Though some liberal arts education is mixed in, the vast majority of classes are industry-specific and experiential.

Associate’s degrees require less time and money. Savvy students stretch their dollar by starting at community college, where tuition costs a fraction of what you’d pay for the first two years of a bachelor’s degree, then transfer to four-year programs. State-initiated guarantee transfer programs promise certain credits will carry over. Student employment outcomes are tracked by program area; in career technology education, a popular field, 95 percent of students are employed or continuing their education upon graduation. 

At Metro State University (MSU), a work-force-oriented college with a unique transfer partnership, millennials come for value as well as the curriculum. President Stephen Jordan is especially excited about a new advanced manufacturing initiative aspiring to prepare Colorado residents for in-state manufacturing jobs. MSU was selected as the only four-year partner to work with Front Range Community College and a dozen other associate programs under a $24 million federal grant allowing two-year grads to continue their education at MSU.

Flexible scheduling is something community colleges and state schools such as MSU do well. In addition to daytime and evening classes, students can find hundreds of online offerings, as well as classroom-online combinations.

Knowledge for its own sake

Sometimes specific skills suffice. Noncredit, casual (read: no grades, no tests) enrichment programs offered through Colorado Free University meet this demand. 

That’s a bit of a misnomer – Colorado Free University does charge for courses – but President Helen Hand says, “You’re free to direct your own course of learning.”

Most of the for-profit’s offerings are two- or three-hour classes costing, on average, $39 to $54, geared toward college grads in their late 20s and learners who are 50-plus and switching careers. “Students get a little nugget they can take and apply, then come back when they need something else,” Hand says. Classes offered through the Computer Training Lab are usually one to two days, with the two-day HTML class priced around $400.

University College’s 10-year-old enrichment program has similar no-pressure courses that expose students to DU’s faculty. Offerings range from $20 to $435, with most priced around $150.

Coding culture

For-profit hack schools include the gSchool at Galvanize, which has a third metro location opening soon and teaches tech in 24 weeks for $20,000. It guarantees well-paying jobs for grads.

“If we can’t get you a bona fide job offer in the Front Range for $60,000 or more within six months of graduating, we will refund tuition,” says gSchool instructor Jeff Dean. Since opening its doors in early 2013, gSchool hasn’t issued a single refund.

The signature offering is a six-month, 9-5 developer training program with curriculum in Ruby on Rails, Sinatra, Javascript, CSS3, HTML5, Responsive Design, APIs, Version Control and Test Driven Development. Part-time workshops are held sporadically.

gSchool’s prowess shows: While national placement rates are, on average, 75 percent, gSchool’s are nearly 100 percent, says Dean.

Another anomaly, Dean continues, are prerequisites – or lack thereof. Students in their mid-20s to mid-50s come from a variety of vocations. All that’s required is a desire to join the information economy.

“We help people with skills and access challenges,” Dean says, explaining the Galvanize coworking space and mentorship model in which members interface with experienced entrepreneurs.


While for-profit and technical schools serve a growing need, employers like Dick Burridge Jr., CEO and chief investment officer at Chicago-based RMB Capital, and an advisory board member of the Burridge Center for Finance at CU-Boulder, remain staunch believers in academic degrees.

As McGuire puts it, “There’s the skills piece, and then there are the pieces you develop in a graduate program.” Adult professionals at DU and CU, for example, learn hard skills like coding and Web development. “They also develop creative and critical thinking skills, work on a team, and learn to lead,” McGuire says. Burridge has witnessed these so-called soft skills first-hand, and calls them “attractive to employers.”

“Education is much more accessible now,” CU-Boulder’s Parés says. His office within the Division of Continuing Education is a “hodgepodge” where students come for undergrad classes, or a master’s in, for example, aerospace engineering through The Center for Advanced Engineering and Technology Education  (CAETE), a partnership between the College of Engineering and Applied Science and Parés’ domain.

Catering to practicing engineers and managers of technology means crafting academic classes around busy schedules – something CAETE has done since the mid-’80s, originally relying on VHS. (They’ve since adopted streaming videos.) Another way schools accommodate adult professionals: nixing GMAT and GRE scores. “We understand how important it is for students to start a degree when they’re ready,” McGuire says.

“Folks understand the job market is becoming more competitive, and you need to update skills more frequently today than you did 15 years ago,” McGuire says.


in the story:

Arapahoe Community College

Colorado Free University

CU-Boulder Division of Continuing Education

DU University College

Galvanize gSchool

Metro State University

University of Phoenix



1991 – 5.8%

2000 – 2.7%

2001 – 5.6%

2002 – 5.7%

2003 – 5.9%

2004 – 5.4%

2005 – 4.8%

2006 – 3.8%

2007 – 4.1%

2008 – 6.1%

2009 – 8.6%

2010 – 9.0%

2011 – 8.3%

2012 – 7.3%

2013 – 6.2%

June 2014 – 5.5%


(Figures from 1991-2013 are for December)

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics