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College campuses see influx of women reentry students

By Pam Mendelsohn, Special to the Christian Science Monitor, Pam Mendelsohn is author of the book "Happier by Degrees" / August 13, 1981

Not so long ago, people on college campuses who were over the age of 35 were automatically assumed to be faculty, staff, or visiting parents. Times have most definitely changed. The traditional student of 18 to 21 is still there, but chances are that right alongside is a person who may be trying to juggle children, spouse, and a job in addition to homework.

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More than one-third of the students on college campuses these days are over the age of 25. In fact, of the 2.9 million student increase in college enrollment from 1972-1979, one-halfm of the new students were part-timers 25 years of age and older.

the influx of women reentry students is especially dramatic. among students age 35 and older, women outnumber men nearly 2 to 1. Between 1975 and 1978 the number of female students between the ges of 24 and 34 rose 187 percent. Women who have never worked outside their homes, women who have been happily or unhappily employed for years, and women who have contributed tremendous amounts of energy to volunteer work are all returning to school.

These women have a special set of concerns: "Will I be able to compete with the younger students?" "Where will I find the money to finance my education?" "Is it possible to add a student role to my juggling act without turning into someone I don't want to be?" "How do I select a college, get through registration -- and track down of a decent and legal parking spot?"

Following are the stories of three women at various stages of the reentry experience.

Helen Ranney of Mentor, Ohio, went back to school in 1971 at the age of 50, after being out of school 29 years. at the time, she was a volunteer counselor for a family planning agency. the position carried a great deal of responsibility, and Mrs. Ranney decided she wanted to be paid for her work and that she had a lot to learn. She entered a master's degree program in counseling at Kent State University.

The major concern for Mrs. Ranney was whether she would be able to keep up with the younger students. "I was absolutely convinced I wasn't smart enough or capable enough," she remembers. Her first semester, she actually got as far as dropping two of her three courses before another student urged her to reconsider. By midsemester, she saw that her work was comparable to that of her colleagues.

As a reentry student, Mrs. Ranney's family life also kept her hopping. Her husband Neil, then 60, was preparing to retire, and although very proud of his wife's student role, was looking forward to extended vacations together. The Ranney's have five children. The three eldest, all daughters and very supportive of their mother's decision, were away at college. The two teen-age boys were still at home.

Maintaining a B-plus average, Mrs. Ranney graduated with two master's degrees , one in rehabilitation counseling and the other in college counseling. She immediately found a job as a college career counselor and after two years accepted a position as a community organizer at a free clinic.

In 1979 Mrs. Ranney left the free clinic because she wanted to spend more time with her family. To achieve a good balance between her professional and family life, she has decided that she would not work more than 6-to 12-week stints.

"I am so glad I went back to school," says Mrs. Ranney. "My jobs have been substantial and challenging. My marriage seems better than ever. I feel good about myself, a lot more self-confident in reaching out and pursuing my own interests."

Sarah Beacom of Gaithersburg, Md., entered Montgomery College as a 33 -year-old freshman four years ago. "I'd always wanted to go to college," she says, "but couldn't at age 18 because of financial difficulties."

Mrs. Beacom's major problem was learning how to study again and to coordinate her study time with her other major commitments. She and her husband have three children who were seven through 10 years old when Mrs. Beacom decided to enroll at Montgomery.

The reentry process was made easier, she says, because of one of the initial courses that she took: "Options for Women." The class is designed to help women who are seeking to redefine life goals and aims. The class provided Mrs. Beacom with an abundance of information and moral support.

Mrs. Beacom feels that her purpose in school is not to gather skills for a job. "I'm here because I have a voracious appetite to learn everything I can," she says. Nevertheless, she does plan to pursue a career after her childdren have left home. She would like to find a position counseling reentry women.