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Now is time to pursue college degree

(Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)
By D.C. Denison
Globe Staff / October 9, 2011

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Deborah Wright just finished her first year as the director of the Center for the Adult Learner at Lesley University in Cambridge, after more than a decade working in and eventually leading the adult education program at Montreat College, in North Carolina. She recently spoke with Globe reporter D.C. Denison.

Is a bad economy good for adult education?

Absolutely. It’s always been counter-cyclical, because when people aren’t working they often decide to go to school and get that degree that they’ve always wanted. And that’s a good strategy. If you can imagine an employer looking at 200 job applications for a job, the first thing he or she is going to do is divide the pool: have a degree, don’t have a degree.

What’s the most common question you get from prospective students?

Usually our conversation starts with, “I’ve always wanted to . . .’’ A lot of adults are now rethinking their careers from the point of view of, “If I had to start all over again, what would I like to do.’’ People tell me, “My kids are gone,’’ or “I’ve been laid off,’’ and they want to take advantage of the opportunity.

What are the hot sectors, the ones snapping up graduates?

Business management is always hot. That’s an area that’s very broad. The popularity of sectors can also vary by region. I’ve noticed, for example, that psychology and human services are very hot here in New England. In North Carolina, it was all business: People were interested in going into banking and small business.

Why do you think New England has that different orientation?

It seems that we have a lot of social services here, compared to North Carolina. Also people are looking for a way to help. People come in here interested in studying things like expressive therapy, a lot of arts-related fields, out-of-the-box things.

Do you get many applicants who say: I want to get my college degree because everyone I work with already thinks I have one?

I occasionally hear that. They sort of drop their voices when they say it. They want to get a degree, but no pomp and circumstances. They almost whisper it when they come in.

Are some adult students unprepared for all the technology they are expected to know?

That’s not a big issue. There are a lot of computers in everybody’s houses now. I think the kids are helping the parents and a lot of students are helping each other.

The scariest thing for most adult students returning to school is that whole deer-in-the-headlights feeling that, “Oh my God, how am I going to manage this, and keep my job, and still get home in time for dinner?’’ They are not so afraid of Excel, they are afraid that this could be another time that they don’t get to finish. A lot of them think they’re going to be too old.

Has online education changed adult learning?

It really has, because it has eliminated one of the biggest barriers to adult education, which is time. It allows students a lot more flexibility. You can do it on your own time. It’s also changed how faculty think about learning. When you design a course on the ground, in a classroom, you automatically think about a textbook. Now you can reach out and grab a resource on the Web rather than read a textbook.

What’s the single piece of advice you hear yourself giving over and over?

If you don’t have it, you need to get your undergraduate degree. If you don’t get it here, that’s OK. But get a degree. That piece of paper really does level the playing field. It almost doesn’t matter what you study. Most of us are not working in the fields that we went to school for.

And there’s very little benefit to waiting. I’ve talked to students for four years about going back to school, and I’ll say to them: Do you realize that if you started school when you first started thinking about this, then you’d be done by now?