When I examined most of the data reports covering the past decade, I found that the percentage of learners in each age category has remained stable over the years, with one short-term blip. And the current suitability target covering 45-64 year olds is simply out of whack with program realities.
I removed the 2012-2013 data from this graph to better see the trends without the interference of wonky data that coincided with the introduction of a new database system. Another thing I did was add together the more numerous age groups in the current database system so I could make a direct comparison with the previous one.
The larger age groups from the old system are also still in use, and one of the categories, the 45-64 year old group is a “suitability indicator”—government speak for a target group. However, the group is targeted despite the reality of the age of learners in the program, and without specific funding or policy support.
The younger cohort of 25-44 year olds is twice the size of the middle aged cohort of 45-64 year olds, and at times approached half the total enrollment (43% to 47%) over the past decade. In comparison, the 45-64 year olds have comprised less than one-quarter (20% to 23%) of the total enrollment over the years.
The under 24 cohort, with only a six year age range of 19-24 (compared to a 20 year range in the other two cohorts) is still a larger cohort than the 45-64 year olds with under one-third (28% to 31%) of learners.
Only 3% to 4% of learners have been 65 and over during the past decade.
For the most part, the age of learners has remained stable, except for a one year blip in 2009-2010 when the 45-64 year old category increased by 3% over the previous year to 25%. This short-term spike coincided with increased funding at the same time as an economic downturn. It also coincided with the beginning of the Second Career initiative that provides up to $28,000 in funding to recently laid-off employees who want to retrain for a new job at a college. Those who weren’t quite ready to enter a college program were directed to LBS for short-term upgrading and academic preparation. The trickle down from Second Career, which was in full operation at that time, may account for the short-term increase.
Insisting on including the 45-64 year old group as suitability indicator, which is used to judge program effectiveness and make funding decisions, is perplexing and ultimately counter-productive. The desire for middle aged adults to access LBS was very short-term. All of the conditions that supported the one-year increase are gone. Repeating this increase is nearly impossible for programs on their own. The misguided focus on this age group obscures program realities: LBS learners are young adults, and the age profile of learners is very stable.
I took a closer look at the past three years of data which uses more refined age categories of five-year increments. The trend line indicating age distribution is pretty much identical for the three years. The single largest category or 22% of learners is 20-24 year olds, three times the number of (7%) of 45-49 year olds. Interestingly, the proportion of 20-24 year olds is exactly the same as the target group of 45-64 year olds, and that’s four age groups combined!
Here is one more way to look at and talk about the age of LBS learners:
Nearly half of all learners are young adults, 29 and under, including some teenagers. This is more than double the number of adults in their 30s and triple the number of adults in their 40s.
Why are accountability measures not in line with program realities? What is the government’s rationale for targeting a middle-aged group? Are programs being pressured to change their focus and work with more learners who are 45-64? What sorts of distortions are created by these pressures?
If the government is actually interested in targeting a middle-aged group and changing the current profile, programs would need a coordinated outreach effort accompanied by increased funding and a well thought-out curricular focus that appeals to older learners. In the meantime, what is being done at the policy level to support the interests and aims of the younger cohort in programs? Do policy folks know they are there or are they more concerned with those who aren’t in the program?