Baby Boomers Reinvade the Student Union

Older students are hitting the campuses, for career changes as well as fulfillment

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

This spring Kimberley Tugan will graduate from Appalachian State University in Boon, N.C. On the same day, her mother, Marilouise Tugan, will graduate from Guilford College, in Greensboro, N.C.

"I watched my children get their degrees and have those experiences," says Ms. Tugan, "and I felt that I'd really missed something. I always challenged the children to go beyond the standard limits, and now I'm challenging myself."

Tugan represents an important and growing educational trend: the boom in baby boomers on American campuses.

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Students 40 years old and over represent the fastest-growing population on college and graduate-school campuses and now represent a record 11.2 percent of all those enrolled. The social and economic impact will be felt not only among students themselves, but also by the colleges they attend.

From single mothers to midcareer males to grandparents with time on their hands, these older students are returning for a wide range of reasons, usually related to career and advancement but often for self-discovery. Sometimes they go for one reason and stay for another.

"Most students tell us they came back to school for work-related reasons," says Kathleen Stinehart, associate dean at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Va. "Yet by the time they graduate, the most important gains they tell us they have made have been in more personal areas - things such as increased self-confidence, knowing oneself better, and becoming 'turned on' to a lifetime of continual learning."

For Donna Peaker, for instance, the motivation was partially career-related but primarily a matter of personal goals. She graduated in May from Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., with a major in sociology. Now at Regis College in Weston, Mass., she is taking additional courses to prepare for medical school or for a master's degree in nutrition.

"This will equip me for my longterm goal and also provide an income for myself," says Ms. Peaker. "I knew by my early 40s that I wanted to go back to school and study something that would allow me to be involved in the mission field, specifically medical missions. I'd love to be involved in health care in rural Maine, and I really don't care if people pay me in chicken and goats - as long as the chickens are dead, cleaned, and plucked."

At Brandeis, "'Adult scholars' is the label that we had," she chuckles, adding that others on campus "were not always accustomed to seeing someone with white hair" and didn't always know what to do with nontraditional students, who she says were sometimes in a kind of limbo.

The idea of studying again came to her in 1986, after she was divorced and her children had grown up and left home. "I realized I had the opportunity to write all the blank pages of my life for the next 50 years," she recalls. "Many of my friends are thinking of retiring or are very involved in family. But I've committed myself to long hours of study."

For their own reasons, some 1.6 million students like Peaker are going for post-secondary education, an increase of about 235 percent between 1970 and 1993.

"We are seeing a surge of 40-plus-year-olds," says Robert Deahl, dean of the Marquette University College of Professional Studies in Milwaukee.

He finds that older students are often seeking promotions at work or trying to meet the challenge of new requirements on the job, such as earning a bachelor's degree.

"There is a new recognition of [staying] employable," says Mr. Deahl, "given little job security."

In some cases, he adds, companies "are radically changing how their managerial infrastructure works. Sometimes, he says, it's "from a more vertical management structure to a more horizontal, team-based environment in which all employees need a new skill set beyond their particular technical field."

He says these demands may include "communication skills, critical thinking, working in teams and groups, conflict resolution, leadership and organizational skills, computer skills, and the like" - all requiring new training of one kind or another.

"The impact so far has been in the programs being offered, particularly in the colleges [versus graduate schools]," says Jamie Merisotis, president of the Washington-based Institute for Higher Education Policy.

"We've moved away from more traditional liberal arts toward more career-specific, vocational-type programs, a greater focus on what the older student wants."

Mr. Merisotis's group and the Education Resource Institute in Boston recently released "Life After Forty," a report detailing the increase of students in that age category at colleges and graduate schools.

One of the effects, says Merisotis, will be to put a premium on "distance learning" via computers, and other educational technologies.

"The over-40 group are the ones taking advantage of this technology" he says, often because they need to be at home with families or are pursuing a career. "They're also getting a lot of training from their employers," he says. "Employers are investing in training as never before."

But the big change, according to Merisotis, will come when the children of baby boomers - the so-called "baby boom echo" - start entering college, he says. The combination of both "echo" people and some of their parents entering colleges at the same time may well tax the educational infrastructure, according to Merisotis. "We are just at the beginning of the wave," he says.

If the strong and enduring rewards reported by older students are any indication, the wave of older students is unstoppable.

As expressed by Madeleine Roy, an older student at the University of Maine in Lewiston, "It opens up your whole world. I've changed my way of thinking in more ways than I can count."

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