Categorized | Life

The Changing Face of College

Posted on 23 February 2009

Older Americans are returning to school in droves.

Today’s college student may be any age from 20 to 100. And, if advances in longevity and genomics keep up, 150-year-olds may soon be found taking notes alongside their great-great-grandchildren in Psych 101. Even today, you can find an amazing diversity of ages in almost any college classroom.

Why are older students returning to campus? When you look at what courses that these older students are enrolled in, it’s hard to find a pattern. You could find a 40-year-old in an anthropology class, in Italian literature, or even in graphics design. When I talked to older college students about reasons for returning to college, their answers fell mainly into three categories.

1. Staying In the Loop
It’s a pretty safe bet that most of the people who have gone back to school (to take a computer course, for example) are there to try to keep up with the endless changes and upgrades in technology. At a community college course titled “Build Your Own Website,” I met Marilyn, a 50-year-old court reporter. When it came to setting up her court reporting Web site, Marilyn hired a professional designer. But now she wanted to sell her photography on the Web, be a little more creative, and actually build the site herself. So she signed up for a course–and the teacher was young enough to be her son!

It’s not easy to work all day, then go to classes at night.

Marilyn took it all in stride. “Last spring, I took a course on how to maximize the ACT! Program for my business,” Marilyn explained. “I had the book, of course. But it’s so much more interesting to learn in a classroom environment. You can interact with all kinds of people. If I have a question, I don’t have to search for the right term in the index. I can just ask the teacher.”

She isn’t the only one who finds it easier to learn in a classroom. It’s one of the main reasons why community college and university classes are filled to the brim with older students. In fact, coming out of the Internet class just across the hall, I met a cheerful 68-year-old man named Henry. He beamed when he told me he’d just gotten the hang of e-mail. “I’m going send a newsletter to my family,” Henry told me. “With 16 kids and grandkids, it was always too much trouble before. But this is a breeze!”

People of all ages have gotten caught up in the excitement over new technology. Even those who are less enthusiastic are starting to take classes–just to keep from feeling left behind. It’s one thing to get older, they told me, but quite another thing to feel completely out of the loop.

2. Making Career Changes
The average person today changes jobs every five to seven years. Whatever you study in college may help train you for your first career, but what about your next one, and the one after that? You will probably keep any one job for about three years and are likely to work for at least 10 employers, provided they don’t start a business themselves. “It’s not a question of whether you’ll have a second, or third, or even fourth career,” says Julie Connelly in Fortune magazine, “but when and how you will choose.” Going back to college for at least a course or two when people make these changes is starting to become the norm.

Glen was a successful real estate agent for fifteen years before he went back to school. An AA degree was fine for working in real estate, but when Glen decided that the real money was in law, he needed more education. He chose a college that gave him a few credits for life experience and let him test out of a course or two. In a little over a year, he earned his BA and got into a law school that offered night courses.

“It’s not easy to work all day, then go to classes at night,” Glen says. “And I never have enough time to study like I need to. But I’ve been around long enough to know that life is like that anyway. You have to juggle things. And I know the payoff’s going to be worth it.” Glen’s best friend, Jackson, is a successful corporate attorney and drives a sleek, black BMW–the kind of ride that Glen could never afford as a realtor. “That’s the carrot,” he confesses. “I’m gonna to get that car!”

3. Personal Enrichment
In my neighborhood, the universities and community colleges offer a range of personal enrichment programs that would have been laughable 20 years ago. Within a few semesters, you can get a certificate in landscape design, faux painting techniques, graphic arts, being a paralegal, and starting your own business–whether online or off.

Many students are senior citizens, who are now so much healthier and more active after retirement than the previous generation ever was. The fact that they travel so much more has created a whole new version of ‘adventure travel’ worldwide. It has also increased demand for college courses that promote personal enrichment. Many of these students are learning about things that have fascinated them for years. And now, finally, they have time to really find out what they’ve always wanted to know. In some cases, they may even become an expert on the subject.

“I’ve always been a connoisseur of wine,” Adrian told me. “I had a modest collection of domestic wines and could usually make sense of a restaurant wine list. But could I tell you the difference between an Italian and French Cabernet? Not really. In the big picture, so many other things were more important in my life. But now I’ve had time to take a few courses. And, I’m pleased to say, I do know the difference!”

Putting your education in perspective, as Adrian did, is one of the main differences between energetic college students just out of high school and their more seasoned classmates. Coming back to school later in life means that you bring a sense of identity and perspective to your studies. Many younger students do not have that perspective, and the classroom experience is enriched for all.

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