In September, those who attended Northeastern State University’s 22nd Annual Emerald Ball gala for scholarships learned about two featured scholarship recipients, including NSU senior Blake Dean of Glenpool.

An adult learner, Blake had tried his hand at college years earlier, but it wasn’t meant to be. He worked various jobs afterward but said the moment he held his newborn son and looked into his eyes, he knew he had to do better for him and his family. Blake went back to community college and graduated with a 4.0. It was a proud moment. And now he is working hard to earn his bachelor’s degree at NSU.

Regardless if it is a delayed dream or retooling for the workplace, adult learners are looking to invest in themselves. Many adult learners have a high school diploma, job, and maybe some college hours under their belt. They have numerous commitments that demand a substantial portion of their time, are career-focused, and anxious about returning to school. Earning a college degree is one way adult learners can strive to better the lives of their families. How can I speak so matter-of-factly on the subject? Because I turned to higher education as an adult learner myself – after nearly a decade of oilfield work.

In spite of some negative rhetoric regarding the value of a college degree, adult learners are an ever-increasing population on Oklahoma campuses. Like Blake and I, they are turning to higher education as the solution that will benefit their family. It’s not an easy path. It takes commitment. There are full-time jobs, children and family responsibilities to juggle in order to finish their degree.

Northeastern State University and the entire Oklahoma higher education system works hard to create solutions – one degree at a time. As I have mentioned previously, we have a grand opportunity to put Oklahoma on a new path that meets critical employment demands. New careers are readily available for the adult learner willing to retool.

Oklahomaworks.gov tells us 100 critical occupations must be addressed by 2020. Included in their list are physicians, surgeons and optometrists requiring doctoral/professional degrees; speech-language pathologists and nurse practitioners requiring master’s level education; teachers of all levels, petroleum engineers and computer system analysts requiring bachelor’s degrees; and registered nurses and web developers requiring associate level education. Other critical occupations needed by 2020 include HVAC installers, firefighters, computer user support specialists, and tractor-trailer drivers.

Quick math shows us that of these 100 critical occupations, 8% require a master’s or doctorate degree, 41% require a bachelor’s degree, 17% require an associate degree, and 6% require some postsecondary education. When combined, that means 72% of the positions require some postsecondary education or higher, and 66% of the occupations require an associate degree or higher.

There has never been a better time for adult learners to earn a degree. NSU is doing its part to prepare students of all ages for in-demand careers requiring at least a bachelor’s degree. Busy adults can take advantage of NSU’s nearly 60 degrees with in-class, blended, and convenient online options.

My fellow adult learners, it’s not too late. What’s holding you back from earning your college degree and filling a critical occupation?

Steve Turner is the president of Northeastern State University.

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