“We’re facing a shortage of skilled workers, and we know we can’t fill it by just more young people graduating. That’s going to be part of the solution but it isn’t going to solve the problem,” said Pamela Tate, the president and CEO of the Chicago-based Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, or CAEL. “It’s not going to happen without adults.”
Yet unlike countries such as Sweden, the United States offers few supports for adults 25 and older who want to go back to school.
To qualify for federal financial aid in the U.S., for instance, students have to take at least two courses a semester, but few companies provide time off for that, and few working adults can manage it. Some states’ financial-aid programs are completely off-limits to learners over 24. There’s no requirement that American employers hold their jobs for them if they return to school full time, and little to no help for parents who have to balance higher education with childcare. And if they’re lucky enough to qualify for tuition reimbursement from their employers—which many companies have cut since the economic downturn, CAEL says—many recipients have to put up the money themselves and then pay taxes on some of it when they’re reimbursed, as if it was income.
“Everybody needs people with higher skills, but we haven’t set up any kind of arrangements that make it possible,” Tate said. “It’s just so frustrating to see how well it’s done in other places. Because here it’s viewed as, ‘Oh my god, you can’t let people off work for education.’”
In Sweden, on the other hand, “It’s not shameful to go to university if you are older,” said Agnieszka Bron, the chair of education at the sprawling Stockholm University, which sits on the outskirts of that city. “You’re sitting in the same class with younger students, but nobody will look at you as a stranger. You won’t be treated differently.”
Sixty-six percent of Swedes aged 25 to 64 are in college or some other kind of “non-formal” education—including online courses, private lessons, and seminars—one of the highest percentages in the world, according to the OECD.
Older learners in Sweden have even more privileges than the enviable package of supports available to younger students.
For example, in addition to the free tuition their classmates enjoy, the older learners are eligible for subsidized childcare and allowances and low-cost loans for living expenses. The amounts of those loans go up if the older students, unlike their younger classmates, forgo income by leaving jobs. (Their employers have to hold those jobs for them almost indefinitely, although without pay.) And older Swedes even get preference in things such as clinical placements in hospitals if they’re studying medicine, so they can stay closer to their families.
“We’re so used to being able to do this,” said the cheerful Theorin, who was just out of yoga class. She already has a bachelor’s degree in sports education and has worked as a personal trainer and coach and as an au pair in England. “We don’t think twice about it. You can always study, as long as you can cover your living costs. It’s a very big privilege to be able to do this.”