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

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

"They are people who may be feeling restless, bored, or are living with unfulfilled dreams. They have always wanted to do something and are now financially able to underwrite an education. It is enriching, doing something they have always wanted to do; a desire to continue growing."

Whatever the reason, the collective desire to learn, to compete, and to succeed is overwhelming and the sense of commitment is strong.

However, even when the decision is made, there are apprehensions. Can I make it? Will the younger students accept me? How will the faculty react? Am I too old for exams?

These and other concerns often lead to the decision to go lightly at first, to dip just one toe in the water. George Burnham has seen this happen frequently.

"What we have found so often is people who come in and say, 'I just want to take a few courses and see if I can do it.'

"and so they take this smattering of courses and then decide what they want to do. Ultimately, they find that a lot of what they took wasn't contributing to the degree that they wanted. For some people that seems to be an essential step in the whole process."

Joann Albright has noticed this, too.

"You see a lot of that kind of approach which is, 'I'M not sure if I'm going to make it so I will try it out with one course.'"

On our campus, the feedback I get from the new (old) students is the concern about how they're goin to be viewed by the other students because there's such a visual difference. How are the other students going to relate to them? And they have an equal concern about the faculty. Are they going to be a threat to the faculty?

They are are concerned, not so much about the knowledge area, but about the way knowledge is measures: tests, papers, library research.

The lack of confidence felt by many older students generally lasts only a short time. As a matter of fact, as they settle into their first few weeks, the fears tend to evaporate quickly. They find the younger students curious at first.

Why are these old people here? What do they want? When the 20-year-old discovers that the man or woman sitting next to him wants the same thing he does , an education, and is not seeking special treatment, does his homework, takes the exams, writes the papers, he accepts him. Each begins to feel comfortable with the other and they end up helping each other.

The older student gains confidence not only in finding himself accepted by the group but in discovering that he can compete successfully and cope.

Since the nontraditional student has made a strong commitment to begin with (generally, his motivation is internal rather than from financial and vocational needs) he tends to stick with the program through hard times as well as good.

Biology Prof. David Marsh of Metropolitan State observed that the older student is accustomed to being competent in life and already has some skills.

"He is a survivor," said the professor. "He will stick to the point in class discussions."

Denver University's Joann Albright says that faculty at her school liked having older students in classes because they ask questions that tend to be of more depth.

Some faculty have said that it is threatening to have older students because often the student is the same age as or older than the faculty member and it can be threatening if the student asks a great number of questions.

Another objection is that the older student, because of his extreme desire to learn quickly can ask so many questions that the rest of the class doesn't have a chance.

Overall, it was agreed that older students, once over the initial misgivings, display tenacity, participate fully, and receive superior grades. Further, the proportion of older students who remain through graduation is significantly higher than that of younger students.

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