It's not just those in their teens and early 20s who are returning to college campuses; it's also their parents and even grandparents. According to an October 2008 article in the New York Times, over 10 percent of graduate liberal arts students at Johns Hopkins, Dartmouth, and the University of Oklahoma are over 55 years old or retired.
According to the National Center for Education, between 1995 and 2006, the enrollment of students over age 25 rose by 13 percent. Its 2007 statistics indicated that over 40 percent of the 16 million U.S. college students were over age 25. 2010 statistics from the U.S. Department of Education reveal that approximately 5 million, or 25 percent, of college students nationwide are over age 30.
Many middle aged Americans have been the victim of the recession, layoffs, and corporate downsizing. Many have turned to taking college courses as a way to learn new skills, have a career change, or get an advanced degree. Some see it as a way to reinvent themselves.
According to the American Council on Education, studies have shown that adults go back to school for intellectual stimulation, socializing with others and the community, and enhancing their skills. A 2000 AARP study revealed that 90 percent of adult learners identified the goals of keeping up with current events, personal growth, and learning something new as the main reasons why they pursued higher education as older adults.
Many universities see older students as an asset and are trying to attract them.
The Association of Graduate Liberal Studies Programs is an international organization of over 120 universities, including Duke, Georgetown, Penn, and Northwestern, that provide an alternative approach to continued learning for adult students who seek broad, interdisciplinary study in a flexible format.
In 2005, the Boston Globe reported that many universities are trying to attract older students by offering on-campus child care, quiet dorms, evening office hours, multiple enrollment options, weekend classes, and commuter lounges. While older students blend in with younger students at most universities, some schools, such as Brookhaven College in Texas, have programs such as Students 50+, Senior Adult Education, where programs are specifically designed solely for older students.
The advent of online or distance learning has also made it easier and more convenient for older students to go back to college. Most major public and private four year universities now offer courses online, while certain institutions, such as University of Phoenix and DeVry, rely heavily on online courses.
In addition, federal Pell Grants are available to students of all ages who can show economic need, there are scholarships and institutional grants aimed at benefitting older students, and older students are eligible for federal student loans.
I teach Journalism at Temple University and Arcadia University, as well as Mass Media Law at Montgomery County Community College. During my eight years of teaching college courses, I have taught many older, nontraditional students. Generally, most of the older students in my classes have done very well and been able to keep up with their younger counterparts. They tend to be highly motivated, responsible, hard working, deeply involved in class participation, and aware of their goals. They often juggle full time or part time jobs with their school work and have families to raise. Since they are paying for their education themselves without help from their parents, they tend to be highly focused on school work. They also tend to have a positive effect on the entire class, as the rest of the class can benefit from their wisdom, experience, different perspective, and work ethic. While the older students serve as role models and inspiration for their younger counterparts, I've noticed that most of them interact well with the younger students and are viewed as equal peers.
While the Napoleon Dynamite quote "Your mom goes to college" was meant as an insult, now it's a fact of life and something to be proud of.