To the Editor:
As you point out in "Despite an Aging Population in U.S., Fewer Programs Are Training Gerontologists" (The Chronicle, November 21, 2010), it can certainly be "difficult to lure undergraduates into such programs." Indeed, it can be difficult to induce them to consider anything but other twenty-somethings. However, here at the Erickson School for Management of Aging Services at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, we have found a way: Emphasize opportunity. Many in academia disagree with this approach but, especially in this economy, students (and their parents) are asking us to make explicit their education's relevance to future employment as they struggle to make the large investment that attaining higher education requires.
Our programs combine solid academic grounding, including critical-thinking skills, with internship opportunities and applied projects. To get students interested, we grab their attention with a course called "So You Say You Want a Revolution: How Boomers Are Revolutionizing Aging," in which we present to them the amazing effects boomers have had on society to date, and how their demands and sheer numbers will necessitate many services and business models yet to be realized. We emphasize entrepreneurial thinking and the complex considerations of an aging society. The course is engaging—and popular. Students can clearly see that there will be opportunities for them to be involved in meeting these challenges. Aging is relevant to so many fields that the number of minors has grown by leaps and bounds. We have hundreds of students in our courses, and majors in the program have increased by 50 percent over the past two years.
We are fortunate here at UMBC to have a well-respected Ph.D. program in gerontology whose faculty and graduates continue to add to our understanding of aging in this country. Some of our undergraduates aspire to continue their studies in that program or our master's degree. But we need no further scholarship to understand the demographic facts cited in your first paragraph. Our society and every service and institution in it is about to be strained, possibly to the breaking point, by the 76 million baby boomers who began turning 65 on January 1. To solve the complex problems of this age wave, our interdisciplinary program looks through the lenses of aging, policy, and management. We teach our students how to influence policy, how managers of services and organizations designed to help older people must be flexible, authentic and creative, and what it is like to grow old and to care for somebody old. We let them know there is opportunity in academia, government, and the private sector, and that the implications of this trend will require effort from all sectors.
At the same time, and perhaps more important, we expose the bias against and negative attitude toward older people that we have adopted as a culture in this country. Until many more of us shine a light on this and turn it around, until we remove the distaste with which aging is regarded, we will continue to have difficulty drawing students to any subject that has old age at its core.
Faculty members in all areas of study can help with this mission by celebrating the accomplishments of elders in their fields and showing students the strengths that come with age. The academy is filled with older people in whom the students are already interested—professors and administrators who inspire and teach them every day. It is those people—that is to say, us—whom we are teaching about in our courses, not only the very old. If more of us begin to let students know that there is opportunity in gerontology and the management of aging services, opportunity for scholarship, scientific research, management, and entrepreneurship (to scratch the surface), we might begin to see enrollment numbers turn around in any number of programs that address the issues of aging.
Judah L. Ronch
Professor of Practice and Interim Dean
Erickson School for Management of Aging Services
University of Maryland-Baltimore County