Categorized | Education

Never Too Late to Learn

Posted on 01 March 2009

Many older students are making their way back to school.

The number of older, more “nontraditional” college students is growing. These students say that maturity and life experience give them a clear advantage in the college classroom, and college counselors agree. As Roselynn Kingsbury, a 50-year-old graduate student at Syracuse University, puts it: “Old age and cunning make up for youth and beauty any day of the week.”

The Second Time Around
This is the second time Kingsbury has returned to college as an older student. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree in 1992, and is now working her way toward a Master’s degree in nursing. She intends to become a family nurse practitioner. Kingsbury says the students in her graduate program represent a wide age range. Even when she got her undergraduate degree, she was older than most of her peers. But fitting into either program has not really been a problem, she says.

Older students are returning to college to start a degree, complete a degree, or gain technical knowledge in their career fields.

Kingsbury advises older individuals considering college to forget about age and concentrate on the support system they have. She says her current full-time program is “scary” because she works per diem to accommodate her schedule, leaving little financial security. It takes the support of friends, fellow workers, her church, and “a good dog” to get by.

Student Life
Debbie Cooper, 44, is a student at Indiana University. She was a bit intimidated by her younger classmates when she began a B.A. program in anthropology three years ago. “I was a little fearful that people would make fun of me because I was their parents‘ age,” she says. But that never happened.

Cooper not only fit in with the other students in class, she was a hit in the extracurricular realm as well, playing in the college softball league and taking an active role in student government. “It’s great going to school as an older student,” Cooper notes. “You don’t have that imperative that you have to get drunk every Saturday night.”

Like Kingsbury, Cooper singles out finances as one of the most challenging aspects of going to college during her prime wage-earning years. She works part-time as secretary to the coordinator of returning students at Indiana University. Cooper, who previously sold investments full-time at a bank, now relies on loans and scholarships to help defray costs.

A Rejuvenating Experience
Susan Wrynn enrolled at Simmons College in Boston at age 50. She was working as a records analyst at a major engineering firm at the time. Wrynn says she considered college for years before enrolling, but was intimidated by standardized graduate school tests–and her age.

Wrynn, whose employer paid 75 percent of her college tuition, took classes in the evening and on weekends. It was a demanding schedule over the ensuing three years, but she “found the whole experience really rejuvenating.”

Now 57, Wrynn preserves historic documents and manuscripts as the director of reprographic services at the New England Document Conservation Center. Wrynn was successful because Simmons College officials reassured her regarding test concerns and offered services geared toward returning students.

Before Deciding, Research Your Colleges
According to Sally Jones, program developer and coordinator for returning students at Indiana University, there has been an increase in older students returning to college to start a degree, complete a degree, or gain technical knowledge in their career fields. The age range of nontraditional students at Indiana University is 25 to 70, she says. The average age of returning women students is mid-30s, Jones notes, while returning men tend to be in their early 30s.

Jones advises would-be students to research prospective colleges to determine what services they offer to older students. That’s how you can get the most out of a sizable tuition investment. Her office provides scholarship information and a schedule of speakers who encourage older students.

Bea Gonzalez, assistant dean in continuing education at Syracuse University, urges older students to investigate how a college tailors services to their needs. For instance, she says that her college keeps its administrative offices open until 8 p.m. most evenings. It also has a “one-stop shopping” advisor program for older students and unique tuition payment options.

“I think people need to enter [college] with the idea that they are lifelong learners,” adds Kingsbury. After all, “your brain doesn’t atrophy with age.”

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