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At first, I thought it was only the degree that mattered

By David PotterSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / January 26, 1981

Evergreen, Colo.

At 59, I am a born-again college student. Early retirement made it possible for me to try to finish what I began so many years ago. At first, my only desire was to obtain a degree. Grades meant nothing, except to pass; making new friends never entered my mind, and I didn't consider the possibility that I might learn something interesting.

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With little self-confidence, I started class in the summer of 1980 with a 12 -hour schedule.

In biology (a great weakness of mine 35 yers ago) the first exame came back marked "A" and I surprised myself by completing the semester with a grade point average of 3.75 out of a possible 4. In the glow of this initial success, I enrolled for 17 hours the next semester and again did a respectable job.

It has been an exhilarating experience. Fellow students take me seriously. Instructors treat me just as they do other undergraduates and I am learning something new and valuable every week.

My priorities in life are changing. Instead of TV there is homework at night and on weekends. There are new ideas to discuss with the family, and there is no longer time to ponder the emptiness of growing old. My life has acquired meaning and purposes again.

Has my experience been unique? Are there others who, in restless contemplation of retirement years, made the same decision?

Of course there are. There may be as many as 250,000 of us on the nation's campuses. We are not just reliving a past replete with white buckskin shoes, letter sweater, and fraternity frivolity. We are rediscovering our minds, expanding our knowledge, and getting to know the new generation.

Many of our contemporaries cannot understand why we spend our time this way, however.

Why do men and women in their 50s and 60s put aside the comforts of retirement to face the campus hassle, complete for grades with 20-year-olds, and agonize over exams and term papers? Have they gone around the bend or have they discovered something new? I though it might be interesting to find some answers to those questions.

I decided to take a look at this relatively new subculture of which I am a member and selected three city campuses in Denver, Colo., which have a combined full-time student body of about 28,000.

Since millions of Americans now enroll in continuing education and self-enrichment programs which require no real commitment and little effort, I have limited my sample to those men and women who are over 50 and who are full-time students pursuing formal degree programs.

There are more than 700 of us at the three schools, some 3 percent of the total student bodies.

Three administrators were particularly helpful, and each has kept in close touch with the nontraditional older students.

They are George Burnham, director of admissions for the Colorado University Denver campus: Joann Albright, director of career counseling and placement at Denver University, and John Montgomery of the Metropolitan State College Academic Advising Center.

George Burnham explains why retirees make good students.

"The higher the age, the greater the motivation. It could be from a variety of aspects. The older student tends to have this desire toward accomplishment, toward completing something and naturally, he brings to it a great deal of experience. Once he finds that what he has been doing feeds into what he is now trying to learn, this in itself provides an everexpanding area of motivation."

Metropolitan State's John Montgomery commented: "This is a type of person not satisfied with occupying his time casually. He has vitality. He needs intellectual stimulation.

Denver University's Joann Albright said.