Several people work at a bank of computers in a classroom. In the front of the frame is an older man and and a younger man in discussion.

Research team sets out to find keys to college success for older students

Phyllis Cummins and two doctoral associates have a discussion at a conference table in a library.
Dr. Phyllis Cummins (center), a senior research scholar in the Scripps Gerontology Center at Miami University, is leading a study on the college success of students between the ages of 40 and 64.

Employers can no longer afford to discriminate against older workers, and the reason might surprise you. It’s not lawsuits; it’s demographics.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), labor force participation by Americans age 55 and older grew at a faster rate between 1994 and 2014 than it did for younger Americans. The BLS projects that between 2014 and 2024, labor force participation by those 55 and older will grow at a rate of 2.1%, while participation by those 25-54 will grow much more slowly, at a rate of just 0.4%, and participation by those 20-24 will actually decline by 0.8%. Given these statistics, it’s clear that employers’ success in the coming years will depend on older workers.

Far from taking this demographic reality for granted, however, more and more workers between the ages of 40 and 64 are working to stay competitive in the job market by enrolling at the nation’s community colleges. And community colleges – vulnerable to the same demographic pressures affecting employers – are happy to have them.

“There are a lot of reasons to want to try and facilitate continued labor force participation by this age group,” says Phyllis Cummins, a senior research scholar in the Scripps Gerontology Center at Miami University.

The problem, she says, is that not much is known about what contributes to college success for older students. To help solve that problem, Cummins and her co-principal investigator, Peter Bahr, an associate professor in the University of Michigan’s School of Education, along with the rest of their team, will analyze data collected by the Ohio Department of Higher Education and the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services. They will contextualize this data by listening to focus groups of students and faculty at three Ohio community colleges: Clark State Community College, Rio Grande Community College, and Cuyahoga County Community College. Finally, they will round out the picture by interviewing key informants at all of Ohio’s community colleges.

In addition to Cummins and Bahr, other members of the team are Kathy McGrew, a senior research scholar in the Scripps Gerontology Center, Scott Brown, an associate professor in Miami’s Department of Sociology & Gerontology, Mike Hughes, manager of Miami’s Statistical Consulting Center, and Jing Zhang, an associate professor in Miami’s Department of Statistics. The team’s work is supported by a $1.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES).

“We’re especially interested in looking at the kinds of programs older students enroll in,” says Cummins. “We suspect that it’s going to be more short-term certificate programs and credentials other than an associate’s degree. A lot of older students might not want to spend two full years in school. They might just want to sharpen up their skills so they can get a promotion or get a job.”

Cummins hopes her team will be able to identify patterns that suggest successful approaches to educating older students. That could eventually lead to an IES development and innovation grant, which would allow the team to test specific initiatives to see whether implementing them on a broader scale will positively affect outcomes for older students. Because her research is just getting started, Cummins doesn’t know exactly what those initiatives will be, but she says they could include things like offering more evening classes, or expanding options for accelerated learning.

Even before they get to that point, though, Cummins hopes to influence the marketing and policies affecting older students by sharing her team’s findings with community college officials as well as state and federal policymakers. She points to community college websites as an example.

“Are the websites’ text and pictures conducive to encouraging enrollment by older students? Are they portraying just young, 18- to 20-year-olds?” asks Cummins.

Cummins says the answers to those questions matter because it’s as important for older students to see models of their college success as it is for members of other traditionally underrepresented groups. And the success of older students in college matters because the future of our economy depends on it.


This post was updated November 1, 2016 to correct typographical errors.

Written by Heather Beattey Johnston, Associate Director & Information Coordinator, Office for the Advancement of Research & Scholarship, Miami University.

Photo of Phyllis Cummins by Kim Logsdon, Scripps Gerontology Center, Miami University. Classroom image by the Knight Foundation via Wikimedia Commons, used under Creative Commons license.

A brick and stone building surrounds three sides of a snow-covered courtyard. In the center of the courtyard is a bronze-like bust on a concrete pedestal. The bust depicts a man reading a book. The courtyard also contains benches, shrubs, and a walking path.

CEHS sponsors J-term workshop

Dark grey line drawing on a green background depicts a brain being injected by a syringe.

Miami’s College of Education, Health, & Society (CEHS) recently sponsored a professional development workshop for faculty. Titled “Winning Approaches for IES,” the workshop was facilitated by Burr Zimmerman and Dave Brownstein of Urban Ventures Group, Ltd. (UVG), and was attended by 12 faculty from CEHS and two faculty from the College of Arts & Science.

IES, or the Institute of Education Sciences, is a division of the U.S. Department of Education that funds education research, and is a frequent target for CEHS faculty research proposals. The workshop began with an overview of IES and the research it funds, during which the facilitators emphasized the following:

  • Because IES is very sensitive to the return (i.e., publications) on their research investment, they prefer to fund applicants with a strong research track record and/or publication history. The agency tends to place more emphasis on the researcher than on the research project. Therefore, Zimmerman suggests that prospective applicants without strong research or publication records of their own might increase their likelihood of funding by partnering with a “known” researcher.
  • IES is looking for rigorous, hypothesis-driven research, including fundamental studies that identify the factors that govern education outcomes, developing or improving interventions, assessing existing interventions in specific contexts, or broadly measuring the effectiveness of interventions.
  • IES prefers projects that center on malleable factors under the control of – and able to be changed by – the educational system, including:
    • Student behavior and skills;
    • Teacher practices and credentials;
    • School size, climate, and organization;
    • Educational interventions in practice, curriculum, instructional approach, program, and policy.

Much of Zimmerman and Brownstein’s advice – including recommendations about contacting a program officer prior to submission, carefully reading program guidelines, and tailoring a proposal to a specific funding opportunity – was applicable to anyone seeking grant funding, not just those applying to IES.

In the last hour of the workshop, participants formed small groups to develop research ideas or do hands-on reviews of drafts of proposal sections.

The following Miami resources are relevant to points raised during the workshop:

  • OARS’ Pinterest boards are valuable resource guides for researchers and scholars. Of particular interest to workshop participants – many of whom target NIH funding opportunities in addition to or instead of IES – is the “NIH Resources” board, which includes a link to some full proposals for funded projects.
  • Pivot not only helps Miami’s researchers find funding opportunities, it can also help them locate potential collaborators – those “known” researchers Zimmerman and Brownstein say IES is looking for. For the best results, be sure to create an account and claim your profile. (Pivot is a subscription-based service available to Miami faculty, staff, and students while on campus or connected to Miami’s VPN.)
  • Boilerplate descriptions of Miami and its institutional resources can be copied from the OARS website and tailored to fit a specific funding opportunity
  • Data management plans can be developed using the data management tool provided by University Libraries. Numeric/Spatial Librarian Eric Johnson, in the Libraries’ Center for Digital Scholarship, is also available for consultation.
  • Neal Sullivan and Jennifer Sutton in Research Compliance can answer questions about human subjects research and the IRB.

McGuffey Hall image my Miami University Photo Services.  Brain injection image by Sean MacEntee via Flickr, used under Creative Commons license.