04/25/2012 05:26 pm ET Updated Jun 25, 2012

Who's Wearing a Cap and Gown This May? The Answer May Surprise You

This May, thousands upon thousands of college students will don their caps and gowns and be recognized for their achievements at college graduation ceremonies across the country. The commencement ritual itself has not changed much over the decades. But the composition of many graduating classes has changed dramatically. Just a few decades ago, most university graduations were filled with young, fresh-faced undergraduate students between the ages of 21 and 24 -- young men and women about to launch their careers or pursue graduate school. Today, more and more commencement ceremonies include working adults who are looking to advance in their current career or preparing to embark on a second one.

It is not hard to understand why adult learners are the fastest growing segment of college students. Today's competitive job market, along with significant advances in technology, requires people to continually build upon their existing skills while also developing new ones. For these reasons, many working adults are looking for ways to pursue a college degree for the first time, pick up where they left off years earlier, or earn an advanced degree in a related or completely new field from their undergraduate degree. In 2010, the U.S. Department of Education revealed that about 5 million, or 25 percent, of college students were older than age 30. Nationwide, enrollment of students who are 25 and older jumped more than 40 percent with another 20 percent increase expected over the next several years.

In addition to a significant increase in the number of adult learners entering our colleges and universities has been a demand for more flexible ways to complete an undergraduate or graduate degree or certificate program.

At Post University, we are seeing these trends play out in a very real way. This year, 105 of our nearly 800 graduates attended our Main Campus in Waterbury as traditional college students. The remainder completed their degrees through our online accelerated degree program, which was designed specifically to meet the needs of working adults. Almost half of this year's graduates are older than 35, and several dozen have passed their 50th birthdays. Just a few years ago, the vast majority of our graduates were traditional students in their early 20s.

The commencement ceremony itself also has shifted from an occasion where parents and grandparents come to cheer on their children and grandchildren to one where children and grandchildren are doing much of the cheering as their parents and grandparents accept their diplomas, as well. The campus is filled with generations of families who have come to celebrate the accomplishments of their loved ones, which makes for a very emotional and memorable occasion for all participants. And, technology will make it possible for those who cannot travel to campus to participate virtually as the entire ceremony is broadcast live via our website.

For many of our older graduates, the ability to earn that college degree while working full time is only possible through an online program. This is why demand for online education is growing at a much faster rate than traditional campus-based programs. As a recognized leader in this area, many universities are coming to Post to learn more about how to offer high quality online learning options. It is exciting to be at the forefront of such a significant shift in how universities approach the delivery of higher education to an increasingly diverse group of traditional students and adult learners. It is also gratifying to see such a mix of traditional and non-traditional students accept their diplomas on our Waterbury campus each May. A working mom who is balancing career and family responsibilities, an executive whose lack of an MBA is stopping her from moving up the corporate ladder, a soldier stationed in Afghanistan who doesn't want to wait to leave the service to complete his degree, or a forty-something businessman who really wants to finish that degree he started 20 years ago -- all these individuals have used online education to achieve their personal and professional goals and will proudly wear their caps and gowns this May. And, they will sit beside those fresh-faced 20-somethings who attended our traditional campus and are about to embark on a very exciting part of their lives, as well. As someone who has spent the last 40 years in higher education, it really doesn't get much better than that.

Congratulations to the Class of 2012!