May 1 marked the end of a joyous time of year for many young adults. It is National College Decision Day — the date by which most students who have been accepted to colleges and universities around the country have to inform their school of choice that they will attend. If you have checked your social media feeds during the past few weeks, you have probably seen pictures of smiling high school seniors wearing the colors of their chosen schools.
The joy of this day should not be limited only to students and their families and friends. Over the past few decades, colleges and universities have diversified their offerings in recognition of the importance of lifelong learning. Schools have developed a variety of programs to help people advance their careers or to learn a new set of skills in order to switch paths.
Some of these programs will look familiar to adults who haven’t looked closely at college offerings since their own graduation. There are credit-based programs in which students can get a certificate or degree in a year or two.
But, there are also many options that go beyond the pursuit of an advanced degree. Boot camps and open enrollment programs enable people to spend a day, a week, or a month studying with experts. These programs are typically designed for working professionals to give them a theoretical understanding of a core area and practical skills that can be brought back to the workplace immediately.
For public universities, this expansion into lifelong learning is a crucial part of serving the community. These institutions have always been an engine of upward economic mobility. That support now extends beyond providing education to 18-25-year-olds to prepare them to be educated citizens and thriving members of the workforce. It now includes helping people to reach their goals regardless of age.
Teaching in these programs benefits faculty members at universities by enabling them to engage with individuals who bring a wealth of experience to the classroom. This dynamic creates challenging conversations in which instructors must grapple with the real-world problems experienced by students and to think broadly about how their areas of research can be translated to provide insight into these issues. Adult learners will not be satisfied with purely theoretical responses that do not provide them with a tangible path forward.
National decision day provides an opportunity for everyone to take a fresh look at the institutions of higher learning around them. There are programs tailored to a variety of goals and budgets. Decision day for you may be to commit to taking a program to further your goals.
The joy of continuing education is that many of the offerings do not require an application. You can sign up and go. If you’re a college graduate, you think about returning to the school you attended and to relive a little of your own college experience. Or perhaps you can check out a program at a school you have never attended. It can be eye-opening to see the incredible facilities on a new campus. Plus, you can pick up your own garb in school colors while you’re there.
Engaging with these classes is particularly valuable for people who are mistrustful of the modern university. The news is full of stories of individuals making assumptions about what faculty members are teaching to students. Don’t take other people’s word for it. Engaging with continuing education is a great way to gather your own data about the role of higher education in our society. And if you do decide to come back to school, don’t forget to post your own pictures on your social media feeds.
Art Markman is the vice provost for continuing and professional education and new education ventures at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Amarillo Globe-News, Lubbock Avalanche Journal, and the Abilene Reporter News.