College survey: More parents seeking education for career changes

October 24, 2022

CSF Chair Vivian Tsai shared her insights on the 16th Annual State of Higher Education Survey findings in a Page One Sunday Business feature in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.  With a focus on the survey’s findings that parents of college age students are changing careers and going to community college for retraining, the story featured students from CCAC, which posted it and CSF’s infographic on its website. 

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

With her two children getting older and more independent, Jessica Wheeler enrolled at Community College of Allegheny County to start earning the college credits she needs to start a new career as a teacher.

“I thought I could really inspire young people in a way to create a better community and a better future,” said the 40-year-old resident of Monongahela, Washington County.

For 16 years, she has worked as a newspaper carrier for the Observer-Reporter and the Herald-Standard. Now that her children have reached ages 16 and 10, she’s enrolled in community college to prepare for her second act.

A growing number of older adults are deciding it’s not too late to retrain themselves for the workforce.

At a time when the job market is changing dramatically, the College Savings Foundation in Washington, D.C., found in its most recent survey that many parents of college-aged students are changing careers and will need more career and educational training.

“There’s an opportunity there for parents to think beyond their kids and for themselves when it comes to seeking a brighter future,” said Vivian Tsai, chair of the College Savings Foundation. “You don’t even have to pursue an actual degree. It might just be skills-based.”

The annual survey of parents across the U.S. found parents have a new vision of higher education for both their children and themselves that is more career-oriented, affordable and targeted to their evolving employment needs.

Each year, the CSF survey of 1,000 parents of high school students asks them about their children’s educational choices and aspirations. But this survey focused on parents with college-aged children between 18 and 25 years old.

Among other topics, the survey asked parents about their own plans to advance their careers and whether they would need additional education or certifications for their current careers or a new one.

A significant number of parents — 41% — said they were interested in changing careers and will need more education and certifications to do so.

Parents expressed a greater awareness and appreciation for what many consider the non-traditional education path — technical training and community college.

The highest percentage of parents in the survey’s 16-year history — 68% — said they hold vocational and career/technical schools in the same esteem as they do public and private college.

Jessica Wheeler on the Community College Allegheny County main campus on the North Side.(Post-Gazette)

Interest in tech ed

The demand for technical education in Allegheny County is growing.

Enrollment in non-traditional, non-credit programs at Community College of Allegheny County as of the end of September is up 100% compared to the same time frame last year, according to Debra Roach, vice president for workforce development at CCAC.

“Parents are finally coming to the realization that there are good jobs available in the job market that don’t require a four-year degree,” Ms. Roach said. Her division handles all of the certifications and credentialing that don’t require a two-year degree from CCAC.

She worked in continuing education and workforce development at Penn State for five years before moving to CCAC. Over the years, she has seen a generational shift from the “old Pittsburgh mill mentality,” she said.

“Finally, parents recognize that a two-year degree or a workplace development credential is of great value because of the jobs that are open and the ability of those employers to pay family-sustaining wages,” Ms. Roach said.

A hard right turn

Truck driving seemed like a natural next career move for Gina Wright, a 40-year-old mother of four children, who is enrolled in CCAC’s commercial driver’s license course.

While working as a store manager for Cricket Wireless puts her in crosshairs of rude customers from time to time, she said driving a truck across country would actually relieve her stress.

“I enjoy road trips over flying because I like the scenery,” she said. “An extra plus with trucking is you get more mini vacations. You might get a load to Las Vegas, and you get to spend the weekend in Vegas.”

The Braddock resident is mother to four boys ages 25, 19, 12 and 10. She said her fiance also is a trucker, which is how she got interested in the career.

Truck driving pays better than retail work, she said. The CDL program also allows her to get trained in eight weeks, which is significantly shorter than many other vocational programs, which often require one or two years to complete.

Rick Susalla, director of CCAC’s commercial driver program, said truck drivers can earn six-figure incomes right out of the program if they are willing to work night shifts.

“We see a lot of adult students coming into the program for either a career change or because of the way the finances are with truck driving right now,” he said.

CCAC’s most popular training programs include nursing, advanced manufacturing, CDL training for truck drivers and training for emergency medical technicians, paramedics and IT.

Gina Wright, of Braddock, inside a tractor trailer at the Community College of Allegheny College Boyce Campus in Monroeville.(Post-Gazette)

Plunging in

Not only did parents in the CSF survey anticipate needing additional education to support their careers, but also a number of them had already started the journey.

In addition to 41% saying they need additional education and certifications for a new career, 15% of all parents had already started those credentialing requirements.

One in five parents — 18% — said they are changing their careers.

Asked why, 54% said they are interested in an entirely new one; 31% want one that will allow them to spend more time with their families; and 7% said their former job required mandates they did not want to meet, such as going back to the office.

The College Savings Foundation is a nonprofit trade group for 529 plan program managers, state sponsors and financial services firms that manage the tax-advantaged 529 accounts.

Every state in the country has at least one 529 plan. Pennsylvania allows a tax deduction for any contribution — family or non-family — to 529 plans up to the annual gift exclusion amount — $15,000 per contributor or $30,000 for a married couple.

Pennsylvania rules are considered especially generous because the state will give contributors the deduction regardless of whether it is to a Pennsylvania plan or an out-of-state plan.

Ms. Tsai said people can use 529 plans to pay for their education at all stages of life. Parents can take advantage of them to fund any type of continuing education.

“529 plans are terrific for paying for technical, vocational and bachelor’s degree tracks all out of one savings account,” she said.

Ms. Wheeler has taken on a leadership role as student government president at CCAC in addition to her continuing education studies.

“At 40 years old, I was elected by students half my age to be their president,” Ms. Wheeler said.

In her role, she sits on the Board of Trustees at CCAC and attends board meetings.

She will receive an associate degree in general studies from CCAC in May. Her plan is to then transfer those credits to Penn West California [formerly Cal U] and receive a bachelor’s degree in secondary education in 2025.

“I had always had it in the back of my mind to go back to college,” she said. “But I got caught up in motherhood and part-time work,” said Ms. Wheeler, whose husband works as a contractor.

“Community college was definitely the way to start financially, and definitely with me doing the whole transition for my kids.”

Tim Grant: or 412-779-5834.

First Published October 24, 2022, 6:00am