Self-Identity Modification and Intent to Return

Baby Boomers Reinvent Themselves Using the Community College

Louis Mark Palazesi
Beverly L. Bower
Florida State University, Tallahassee

Keywords: baby boomer; adult learner; lifelong learning; intent to return;

However, baby boomers generate revenue in many more ways than just education. A large percentage is involved in some form of business or another and if not directly, than in an advisory capacity. The steel industry is a great example as it’s been around a while, is well established, and has an enormous presence in the U.S. One great example is stainless steel (see A great many baby boomers have been involved in some capacity or another with stainless, and have helped start all manner of businesses from custom cutting to massive metal distribution centers. For example, the metal used to make a stainless steel backsplash, is an extremely popular commodity with increasingly higher demand nationwide. With baby boomers coming to retirement age, many are considering starting a business, with metals being just one example. The SBA site is a great resource to start with for anyone considering going down the entrepreneurial road.


In addition, as a generation they have been described as idealist, individualist, self-absorbed yet family oriented, self-reliant, and the “me generation” (Popcorn & Marigold, 1997). Baby boomers have also faced a constant learning and relearning process for career moves, for personal growth, or for changing roles in a society that is much different from that of their parents (Dywald & Flowers, 1990; Grabinski, 1998).

The baby boomers accounted for 56% of the adult learners (i.e., those 25 and older) enrolled in community colleges and universities during the past decade, and now they account for almost 20% of all students in American higher education (National Center for Educational Statistics [NCES], 1999; Phillipe & Valiga, 2000).

Many of the baby boomers are in community colleges for personal development, for job-related courses and, to a lesser extent, for transfer courses or remediation courses necessary to gain access to 4-year programs (NCES, 2002). As older adults who have more disposable income than previous generations, a longer working career span, a propensity for continuous learning, and extensive social needs, baby boomers are poised to take advantage of the community colleges (Davies & Love, 2002; Popcorn & Marigold, 1997; Swank, Hollenbeck, Keenan, & Fisher, 2000). Unlike younger students in transfer and workforce development programs who are likely to leave the community college and not quickly return, retired baby boomers are likely to return again and again for multiple learning opportunities (Swank et al., 2000).

Recent surveys on lifelong learning (Swank et al., 2000) showed that of the adults surveyed, approximately 34% of those between the ages of 50 to 59 who were pursuing postsecondary education had enrolled in a community college. A majority of those surveyed (62%) preferred to attend community seminars or workshops rather than community colleges. This would suggest that a rather large segment of baby boomers with the capability to attend a community college for lifelong education decide to otherwise, even though community colleges provide the group format for instruction (e.g., classroom, workshops, or group settings) that baby boomers prefer (Swank et al., 2000). Baby boomers in their retirement years represent a large untapped market and potential revenue for the community college, especially in the area of community educational services. Community college faculty and marketing departments that are able to appeal to baby boomers definition of important educational services will have a much better chance of success at courting this significant percentage of the population.

Theoretical Framework

Marketers have keyed in on the aging baby boomer mantra, “Who could I be?” based on the ageless consumer ideal. Market and lifestyle industries have created an idealized culture of an “ageless consumer” (Katz & Marshall, 2003).


This study, conducted over 2 years, was purposefully designed to include baby boomers who had varied life experiences and were actively attending a community college at the time of the study.

Two sites were used. The initial site, Site A, is a large (16,000 full-time equivalent [FTE] students), comprehensive Florida community college with five campuses serving a large regional population. It is located in a highly diverse, densely populated metropolitan area. Site A was chosen because the target demographic of ages 38 to 58 (cohort age at the time of the study) makes up approximately 19% of students attending the college. At Site A, 13 baby boomers were chosen to participate in the study.

A lunch certificate was promised to anyone who helped recruit a qualified baby boomer. During the course of the study, participants were added using discriminant sampling and constant comparative analysis techniques.

A core group of 17 participants using different community college programs and at different stages in their programs supplied the initial data that were investigated and provided the foundation for the analysis. All 17 were interviewed at least once, and 8 of the 17 participants were interviewed twice.

The modal age for the participants was 48 years with a mean of 47.5. Two additional interviews with faculty members who were not baby boomers (ages 32 and 63) were conducted to collect comparative and confirming data.

The overall analysis consisted of inductive and thematic categorizing of the narrative data in three progressive stages.  In addition, nonattending baby boomers outside the core 17 participants, faculty interviews, and field observations were incorporated not only in the initial stage but also in subsequent stages for confirmation and comparison.


The findings of this study provide new perspectives on the value baby boomer students place on their interactions with the community college. Community colleges have generally focused on raising the socioeconomic status of adults who need more money through better job opportunities or transfer to institutions for degrees leading eventually to careers (Cohen & Brawer, 2002). Although some participants in this study were looking for improved incomes, all possessed some sense of financial security and self-reliance.

You know things happen to you and you lose some of your identity. So I needed a new me. (Jane)

Okay, so, like, I’m reinventing myself. Yeah, that’s a good way to put it. That’s a real good way to put it. Reinventing myself, yes, I am! (Michelle)
I’ll always be me, mind you. Hey, I’m tweaking [who I am]. (Caryn)

One phenomenon that emerged from the data is that a preference by the participant can be developed for the transitory role as a favored way to modify again. Thus, the transitory role of learner becomes a preferred means to a desired end state of self-identity or ideal self-view. If the desire for reinvention is there and a preference for the learner role identity is not developed, other competing transitory roles may also be used as a means to a desired self-identity.

Existing Self-Identity

1. Triggering the SIM and community college experience. This is a construct that frames and explains external events or internal epiphanies that motivated the participants to use the community college to modify themselves in some way. Three triggers were identified in this study. The triggers fell into three categories: life-changing events, desire to enhance existing self-identity, and opportunities to pursue a lifelong dream. Value importance was brought in through expectations. Depending on the trigger, value importance was based on initial value perspectives: what the participants perceived cognitively about the community college (classes available, cost, location, etc.) and emotional anticipation about the experience (will I fit in; how will the community college, younger students, faculty, friends, and others perceive me; etc.). The triggers fell along a dimensional range that went from internally to externally driven. Lifechanging events tended to be very external events and carried substantial emotional perspective:

Opportunities to pursue lifelong dreams appeared more internally driven and also carried substantial emotional perspective:

I earned a living for 30 years doing something I never liked and now I have an opportunity to get back and do what I want. I’ll earn much less money teaching school than I earned as a secretary. It’s more a . . . it’s just doing what I want to do. I always wanted to teach; I want to do this. It’s doing something that has meaning to it. (Lani)

Desires to enhance existing self-identity were usually described as driven internally and externally. Enhancing existing self-identity had substantial emotional perspective but could also carry substantial utility:

I would either have status quo or be going backwards, so if I wanted to continue to grow, I needed to get a degree. And believe me when you’re stagnant for a while at my age things fall apart, body, mind, earning power—one of those things was starting to be my self-esteem. (Sondra)

The self-plan’s value is its use as an internal self-regulating system. Self-plans helped give the participants a flexible and strategic framework for connecting old self-identity, transitory role-identity, and expected modified self-identity.

3. Managing resources and support. Related to but different from adjusting self-plans, managing resources and support frames the properties and purpose of an external regulating system for participants. To manage the SIM process, participants needed to build or adjust external support and resource systems that allowed them to continue with their endeavor.

Transitory Role Identity

4. Assuming the learner role identity. This is the construct that frames and explains a particular transitory role identity with role behavior sets that the participants used to navigate the community college experience and accomplish their modification. Value importance is formulated in the transitory role identity stage as value perspectives are mitigated or enhanced or as new value perspectives are created. For example, three role behavior sets were identified in this study: typical community college student, excited thinker, and integrated learner.  Value perspectives initially brought into the classroom could evolve when participants moved from one set of role behaviors to the next, affecting the value importance of the learner role identity.

Typical community college student norms described by participants included a performance orientation, more concern about what specifically will be on tests, and what grade they received rather than concern for the total content and context of the class. The value importance of the typical community college student role behavior is that it can be used for mimicking or blending in with the younger students to cope with alienation, or in some cases disguising overqualification.

I pretended I was like the young students around me looking like I knew what was going on. I kept bugging the poor kid next to me [about] what he  thought would be on the quizzes; what page that was on and so on. I sat in the back of every one of my classes. . . I was afraid I would get called on or something. (Jane)

B. Excited thinkers. The excited thinker role behavior set is based on competing with the norms of younger traditional students. The behavior perspective is very content-oriented versus grade- and performanceoriented. If there are other baby boomers or older students in the class, they may form a cohort.

A faculty member supports Maria’s sense of excitement:

God I love them, they are the students you dream about in terms of their enthusiasm, interest, and the quality of work they turn out. But I got to tell you some times they are a real pain in the ass—you can’t get them to shut up and I’ve even had an occasion when I had a group of the older students, well, the boomers, and we carried the class for an extra half hour that night about American culture in the sixties.

I’m not afraid to use the college anymore. I see it as a resource for me especially as I get close to retirement and pursue interests, maybe a business, and maybe even a new career. I don’t think my retirement will be like my folks’. (Ned)

5. Navigating conditions. This is a construct that frames how participants in their transitory role identity steered through conditions generated in the community college experience. For navigating conditions, value importance is expressed in terms of the ability to steer away from barriers and toward enablers to a desired degree of modification in the transitory Palazesi, Bower / Self-Identity Modification 57 role given the conditions generated by the experience. The inability to navigate successfully can impact value perspective. The dimensionalized ranges of the construct consisted of enablers and barriers. For example, the community college can create enabling conditions for dealing with barriers to SIM outside the community college. It can positively enhance an emotional/affective value perspective.

Makes my home life, with the exception of my grandkids, seem sort of unexciting and nobody [at home] really wants to talk about my school . . . my boyfriend will talk about it a little bit, but then he wants me to shut up and he starts saying some derogatory things, so then I get pissed and I leave [and] sometimes [go] back to the library if it is open. (Maria)

The community college can also create conditions considered barriers to SIM by the participants. Barriers were defined in this study as obstacles, restraints, and hindrances that restricted the efforts of the participants in using the community college as a self-identity modifier. Barriers can negatively affect a cognitive value perspective (what is thought to be known about the community college).

Modified Self-Identity

Value perspective assessments reoccurred during the participants’ experience (especially in their transitory roles as learners) where initial value perceptions percolate and are adjusted. As the participants’ value assessments are adjusted through their experiences, the cognitive and affective value perceptions are mitigated or enhanced. The buyer–seller relationship is linked to the value assessment as a conceptualized association with the community college that can be objective, transactional, and affiliated with a cognitive value perception (discrete, short-term, and detached) or subjective, relational, and affiliated with an affective value perception (entrusted, long-term, and connected).

The cognitive value criteria are based on what is known about the tangible services rendered at the community college. The cognitive value criteria described by participants consisted of the following:

  1. The utility of the service: What good will a certification, class, or degree do for my career or avocation?
  2. The cost defined as the value of the service against similar options for similar services.
  3. Quality defined in terms of faculty expertise and facilities.
  4. Ease of access and exit from the community college: How easy is it to get in and out of the community college programs quickly?
  5. The buyer (student)/seller (community college) exchange as a transactional, short-term, and low-involvement relationship based on money for services rendered.

In contrast, the affective value criteria described by the participants consisted of the following:

  1. Connection with the community college: Can I connect and relate with the community college experience?
  2. Cost defined as social risk in modifying self-identity: Will I lose status? Will family and friends accept what I’m doing? Will I fit in?
  3. Quality defined in terms of the experience and relationship with the community college.
  4. Ease of access back into the community college as more important than getting in and out quickly.
  5. The buyer–seller exchange as a high involvement, longer term relationship based on a relational commitment to understanding the participant’s needs, and the mutual benefit to both the participant and the community college.

Value importance for the participants was influenced by the degree of modification and by cognitive and affective value perceptions about how they felt they had changed and their exchanges with the community college. Value importance was an important factor for the participants in determining their intent to use the community college again for SIM.

Determination of Value Importance and Intent to Return

  1. While modifying self-identity, a preference by the participant can be developed for the transitory role as a favored way to modify again. Once the participants feel comfortable with the transitory role identity, develop some expertise in playing the role, and have success with that role in modifying self-view, there is a preference to use that role again when they want to reinvent or tweak who they are. Evidence of the preference for the transitory role would be the participants’ intent to return for more educational services.
  2. The degree of modification across value perspectives developed while valuing the experience affects, and can point to, the participants’ intent to return.

Although a few participants minimally described their perceptions in this quadrant, most participants were more likely to describe how they perceived traditional age students’ (ages 18 to 25) value perceptions in this category.

What’s going to be on the test? Oh, I hate that question now. I can see the teacher’s body cringe when they hear that. I cringe now. . . . Those kids don’t care about anything else especially what they could learn. Just a grade to get by. As far as what I see, they’re never going to look at this stuff again. They basically want to check the class off their list, get it over with, and move on. How valuable is that? (Lani)

Participants who perceived a high degree of modification and described the value more cognitively expressed a low to moderate intent to return. They placed importance on product and price and preferred discrete transactional exchanges or business relationship with the community college. They were less likely to return if better alternatives exist for cost, convenience, and accessibility.

My church has a lot of activities and personal enrichment courses that I know I’d be more comfortable with both the furniture and the people. If they offered the history course there I’d go. The CC just needs to be aware that one size does not fit all students, especially older ones. (Bridgette)

Participants who perceived a high degree of modification and described the value more affectively expressed the highest intent to return. They recognized and placed importance on how well the community college made them feel about themselves. Equally important were relational exchanges with community colleges, that is, relationships built on trust, loyalty, and commitment to the institution.

What this experience did for me! . . . I mean I drive by the campus near my house with a whole new respect for what community college did for me, how I look at myself and the world around me. For one thing, from this I look at the world and want to devour all the knowledge I can. The more I learn, the more I discover there is to learn. To get a classroom fix I’d go back to community college after graduation. (Lani)

A key variable in the participants’ intent to return to the community college for future services was the development of relational exchanges and affective value perspectives about the relationship with the community college in helping them accomplish a successful degree of SIM. All participants in this study expressed a substantial affective value perspective, regardless of the level of modification. The higher the levels of modification success at or beyond their initial expectation, the more likely the participants were to express intent to return.


The first is that, although the baby boomers as consumers may use the community college in a utilitarian fashion, the value importance attached to using the service can be much more affective in nature and tied to phenomena like reinvention or SIM. Second, a preference by the participant can be developed for the transitory role as a favored way to modify self-identity in the future. Once the participants feel comfortable with the transitory learner role identity, develop some expertise in playing the role, and have success with that role in modifying self-view, there is a preference to use that role again when they want to reinvent or tweak who they are.

Third, community colleges may want to consider strategies that entice retiring baby boomers to use their services over and over again, especially in community education and continuing education. Such a strategy might focus on consumer loyalty rather than on consumer retention. Secured patronage represents the environment that community colleges conventionally operate in by serving traditional students and workforce development needs. Market share in secured patronage environments can be lost to competition if more attractive and less costly options are available. Consumer loyalty focuses on consumer relationships that remain in spite of other options available and a cultivated return on investment through repeated buyer seller exchanges that replace specific one-shot exchanges. Moving more toward a “consumer loyalty” market strategy may represent unrealized capacity for community colleges in improving services to older adults like the baby boomers.

Developing consumer loyalty may be a better focused competitive strategy in areas where traditional-age students (18 to 25) are decreasing, the working adults’ age is increasing (35+), the population of adults reaching retirement age is increasing, and where there are competing options for services.

Fostering the desire for education, and conveying the apparent value of that education is extremely important for community colleges. Ensuring older adults understand the value of that education might mean that community colleges change the way they present the perceived value to those older students.


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Phillipe, K. A., & Valiga, M. J. (2000). Faces of the future: A portrait of America’s community
college students. Report presented to the American Association of Community
Colleges, Washington, DC.
Policy Studies, Florida State University. His research interests include potential markets for
community college services, consumer value in the higher education environment, and strategy
making in the higher education administration setting.