In the past 50 years, college attendance across the country has more than doubled, and it’s not just recent high school graduates who are signing up. Sure, 18-to-24-year-olds still make up the bulk of higher education’s student body, but older adults are going to college in greater numbers now, too.

In 1970, approximately 767,000 people ages 35 and older were enrolled at degree-granting postsecondary institutions in the United States. Today, more than 3 million people in that age group are attending school.

In Washington state, about 9 percent of students at public four-year colleges, and 16 percent of students at private four-year colleges, are 35 years old or older, according to a survey by the Washington Higher Education Coordination Board. At community and technical colleges, the number of older students working toward a degree or certificate grows even higher, to 27 percent. Nine percent of those students are at least 50 years old.

The reasons older adults make the jump into college life vary. Some go back to switch careers so they don’t have to retire. Some want to earn degrees in order to compete with peers in the job market. Others seek a better work-life balance. Still others simply aim to find happiness and meet personal goals.

We spoke to four Eastside students who are seeking postsecondary degrees later in life to learn their stories and better understand why these nontraditional students have chosen to go back to school.

To Avoid Retirement

Dennis Caplan

Dennis Caplan

Back-to-School Age: 68

Degree Sought: Bachelor’s in Information Security

School: Washington Technology University

Despite the fact that he’s nearing 70, Issaquah resident Dennis Caplan doesn’t want to quit working.

“I’m not ready to retire,” he said. “Part of that’s just because of my need to be around people and be working.”

But because of the physically demanding nature of his current job — operating a downtown Seattle parking garage that he took over from his father — he knew he would have to switch careers to remain part of the workforce.

So Caplan consulted his three sons, two of whom are software engineers. “I love technology. I love all the latest toys. I love learning about it,” he said. His sons encouraged him to pursue that passion.

Then Caplan’s wife saw an advertisement for Washington Technology University in Bellevue, and Caplan decided to enroll there.

Caplan already held a bachelor’s degree in math from the University of Washington, so he was able to attend WTU’s Information Security program, an 18-month bachelor degree track. Once he graduates next year, Caplan said, he hopes to find flexible, full-time work in the tech industry, possibly in consulting.

As for the schoolwork itself, Caplan said even though he graduated from college for the first time in 1972, it’s almost like he never left.

“I understand everything (the younger students) are going through, plus a little bit more, maybe. I find it kind of humorous and amazing that I could step back in it,” he said. “Have you heard the saying, ‘Inside every old person is a young person saying, “What the hell happened?”’ I still feel like the young person that I was when I went to school for the first time.”

Caplan’s sense of humor likely is part of what has helped him return to school life so easily. On the day of the first exam, one student asked him how many years it had been since he last took a test.

His response: “Does a blood test count?”

By the numbers

It turns out, Caplan isn’t alone in wanting to work past retirement age (currently 66). A 2014 Merrill Lynch study found that 72 percent of respondents over the age of 50 wanted to work during retirement, and said their ideal retirement situation would include some kind of employment.

In other words, many people aren’t quitting their jobs outright when they retire. Instead, more and more pre-retirees are taking a short break from work and then re-entering the workforce, either in a different field or in a more flexible, fulfilling role.

In fact, only 12 percent of Americans expect to retire before they turn 59, while 41 percent expect to retire at the age of 66 or older, according to a 2018 Gallup Poll. That’s a shift from the 1990s, when the average American estimated he or she would retire at age 60.


To Achieve a Better Work-Life Balance

Michael Enquist

Photo by Cole Paxton

Michael Enquist

Back-to-School Age: 56

Degree Sought: Bachelor’s in Information Security

School: Washington Technology University

Now 56, Michael Enquist has held jobs in several different fields. Currently a biomedical equipment technologist, Enquist also has worked in positions as varied as a contract security officer and a financial advisor. He even completed a few stints in the armed forces. Enquist’s current job is demanding in terms of time away from home. “I travel every week. I leave my house on Monday and get back on Friday night, and that didn’t work for the family,” he said.

After about six years in his current position, he started thinking about finding a different job, one that would allow him to spend more time with his three sons without forcing him to compromise his salary. That’s when he discovered the Information Security bachelor’s degree program at Washington Technology University.

Enquist holds degrees from years previous: a bachelor’s degree in math and biology from The Evergreen State College and an associate degree in biomedical equipment technology from North Seattle College.

“This particular program is specifically designed for working people,” he said. “It couldn’t have come at a more opportune moment. I was ready to make the switch, and when I discovered this school and discovered the classes that were available, it’s like it was made for me to get started right away.”

He began the program in May and will graduate next August. Hopefully, the added credential will help him get away from on-the-job traveling, and give him skills that translate to a variety of career options.

“It’s something I can take to any company rather than have to work at specialized companies,” Enquist said.

By the numbers

Work-life balance can be a tricky thing to achieve, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less desirable. A recent LinkedIn report found that San Francisco-area employees ranked work-life balance over both salary and benefits. A 2017 FlexJobs survey found similar results, with 72 percent of those polled saying they considered work-life balance the most important factor when considering a job. Seventy percent said salary was most important, and 65 percent said they wanted a flexible schedule.

In 2016, Glassdoor compiled a list of 29 jobs that provide an ideal work-life balance, based on employee feedback. Some of the top jobs include corporate recruiter, UX designer, data scientist, strategy manager, marketing analyst, and web designer. Many of the positions are managerial in nature, and almost all of them require college degrees.


To Bring About Personal Growth and Happiness

Heather Shypula

Photo courtesy Heather Shypula

Heather Shypula

Back-to-School Age: 36

Degree Sought: Allied Health Medical Assistant Certificate

School: Bellevue College

Heather Shypula, 36, started working full-time in the insurance industry after a brief stint at Green River Community College.

“I fell into insurance right out of high school. I was an office assistant, and I moved up very quickly and I thought, ‘I don’t need a college degree. I’m making really good money,’” she recalled. “As an adult, I’ve regretted that.”

Then, after 15 years in the industry, Shypula was laid off. She’d never been unemployed before, and she was horrified. But then she recognized an opportunity.

“I had been thinking about going back to school for a long time, but I didn’t think that it would be financially feasible,” she said. “I worked full-time, and I didn’t know what kind of options I had. My hand was forced when I got laid off.”

Shypula contacted WorkSource, a combined group of state, local, and nonprofit agencies that help provide employment to job seekers throughout Washington. Through WorkSource, she was connected with the state’s Worker Retraining program.

From there, Shypula chose to enter the Allied Health Medical Assistant program at Bellevue College. Once she graduates in a year, she plans to get her bachelor’s degree in healthcare management or informatics.

“The positions that I’m looking to get into are similar in line to what I was making previously. It has more to do with the fact that I did not want to do insurance anymore. I really felt like I had not accomplished anything in my life up to this point,” she said. “My decision to go back to school had a lot to do with my own self-fulfillment and feeling like I actually accomplished a degree and gotten that part of my life done. Maybe a little bit later, but, you know, I did it.”

The classwork was nothing like Shypula remembered from the first time she attended college. “Something shifted right around my 30s,” she said. “I discovered that I really enjoy learning.”

And as for being a little older than the other students, that hasn’t been a big deal, either. She works part-time at Bellevue College’s academic advising center and talks to students of all ages and stages of their education.

“I hear my own story repeated back to me constantly,” she said. “It just made me feel so much more comfortable knowing that I wasn’t the only adult deciding to go back at this point in my life.”

By the numbers

We know anecdotally that our jobs affect our lives. If we’re happy at work, we’re probably happier at home. But scientific evidence also might suggest a correlation between the two. The well-supported “spillover hypothesis” posits that a person’s work experiences affect other areas of his or her life, and vice versa. Therefore, people who report high job satisfaction very well may experience higher satisfaction in life overall.

According to the 2017 World Happiness Report, people who work jobs that generally require more education (professional workers, managers, executives, and other officials) tend to rank themselves higher on the Cantril Ladder of Life, a life evaluation tool, than do people who work jobs that generally require less education (farmers, fishermen, forestry workers, construction workers, and miners).

The report also measured job satisfaction, and nearly 90 percent of workers in managerial or senior professional positions reported being satisfied with their jobs.

Conversely, fewer than 70 percent of workers in the farming, fishing, construction, and mining fields reported being satisfied with their jobs.


To Become More Competitive

Marijke Thomas

Marijke Thomas

Back-to-School Age: 59

Degree Sought: Bachelor’s in Digital Marketing

School: Bellevue College

Marijke Thomas enrolled at the University of Washington several decades ago, but left before graduating to take a job in insurance. She was a single mother and needed to work full-time to support her family.

Now 62 years old, the Kenmore resident has spent more than 35 years in the insurance industry. She said she was good at her job, and moved up as far as anyone could without a degree. But a few years ago, she was unexpectedly laid off. She applied for new positions and was called in for some interviews, but never got hired.

Determined to improve her chances, Thomas dug a little deeper.

“I found out I was competing with students with bachelor’s degrees,” she said. “My problem is that I waited too long. There’s so many people applying for these jobs. One way to weed people out is by degrees. I wanted to get that degree to try to get back into the workforce.”

Thomas got in touch with Washington state’s Worker Retraining program, which helps those who have been laid off earn certification in high-demand fields and find re-employment quickly, and she enrolled in Bellevue College’s bachelor’s degree program in digital marketing.

“I wish I would have done that 10 years ago,” she said. “I know it’s hard. You want a paycheck every two weeks, but your life goes by so fast. All of a sudden, you’ve got nothing to show for it.”

Some of her friends think she’s silly for going back to school, Thomas said. But like Caplan, she isn’t ready to retire. She wants to teach part-time and work in digital marketing or social media. She might even start her own business.

“I still feel like I have a lot to contribute to the world,” she said.

By the numbers

These days, college degrees aren’t just tools for getting higher-paying jobs; they are quickly becoming a necessary requirement for getting many, if not most, jobs.

According to a 2013 Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce report, by 2020, an estimated 65 percent of all jobs in the U.S. economy will require some postsecondary education after high school, and 35 percent of jobs will require at least a bachelor’s degree. That’s a huge jump from 1973, when just 28 percent of jobs were held by people with college degrees.

The report also states that at the current degree production rate, the United States will be short 5 million workers with postsecondary credentials by 2020. An estimated 55 million jobs will become available in the next two years, 26 million of which will require a postsecondary degree, and 10 million of which will require at least some college.