The old model of choosing a career path and working in one job until retirement is disappearing, and older students aren’t wasting time bemoaning its demise. Instead, they are returning to school, re-creating themselves at 50, 60, 70, and beyond.
For the caregiver who wishes she could re-train for a more flexible or lucrative career, the laid-off mature worker, or the senior with unfulfilled goals – whether they include finishing a degree or cultivating a hobby – community colleges offer life changing opportunities.
According to adult education professionals, these older students are doing more than just making the grade: they are enhancing the entire classroom experience. In some ways, they even outshine their younger classmates.
“The older students tend to be very well prepared for class and they are especially thorough readers,” reports Joyce McQuade, Professor and Mathematics Assistant Chair at Westchester Community College in Valhalla, New York. “They may be nervous at first, but they don’t give up – they try harder.” And trying harder, she notes, leads to success.
Unlike some of the younger members of the class, older students are not afraid to speak up and contribute, or to ask questions. Professor McQuade has found that younger people often appreciate their more outspoken, older classmates. “Sometimes older students take on an intermediary role, asking the questions that younger students are too shy to ask. “
That mature students strengthen the classroom comes as no surprise to Mary Sue Vickers, director of the American Association of Community Colleges’ Plus 50 Initiative, which helps community colleges serve students over age fifty. “These students are very focused, particularly those who need new skills, which may be required for employment.”
Vickers sees older students’ life experiences translate into valuable classroom contributions. At a community college in Cape Cod, the younger students gain much from having mature classmates in developmental psychology classes. “They [older students] have been through so many life stages,” she explains.
One reason colleges are tailoring programs to older learners is that society needs their talents and skills. According to the Plus 50 Initiative website: “The 78 million baby boomers currently reaching retirement age represent a tremendous resource to the nation in terms of experience, skills, and leadership. To remain vital, the U.S. must fully leverage this population and help them to continue to lead engaged and purposeful lives.”
Unfortunately, older learners who might take advantage of these educational opportunities frequently feel a lack of confidence. Many have never attended college classes, or it may have been decades since their days as a student.
Vickers encourages prospective students to visit the Plus 50 YouTube Channel
, which features interviews with older students. “It is extremely powerful to hear from someone like themselves.”
Students of all ages will find that they sometimes need extra help. Professors can be a good source of information on how to find academic assistance, but college deans or librarians may know of additional resources. Professor McQuade suggests also looking in the first pages and chapters of the class’s textbook -- “Publishers sometimes have their own websites or online help for students, and these are usually listed in the beginning of the textbook.”
Computer skills, or lack of them, give plenty of returning students a case of the jitters. With the many supports available at colleges, both on-campus and online, technophobia should be short-lived. Older students at some colleges will find classes tailored specifically to their needs; others will find technology tutoring assistance.
Vickers says that one community college even trains high school students to serve as computer tutors – and these young people find great satisfaction in having knowledge to share. Some of the mature students they help will be the same classmates who made a discussion come alive for their less experienced colleagues.
It’s a model of learners reaching across the generations to enliven and improve adult education. As more mature students return to college to reach their own goals, they will help to modernize society’s view that education and work belong to specific chapters in life.
Read Kim Harke’s article titled, "Speak Up for the Care You Need", here.
Kim Harke is a health care technical writer specializing in compliance. She holds a Master’s in history from New York University.