After Anna Joelsdottir's last child left home, she had some choices to make. At first she thought about obtaining a teaching license in Illinois, but ended up instead taking painting classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and entering the Master's of Fine Arts program in her 50s.
More and more people, it turns out, are developing artistic skills within a degree program later in life. "There is a changing demographic of students at art schools," says Samuel Hope, executive director of the National Association of Schools of Art and Design in Reston, Va.
"Where once you only had the 18- to 22-age cohort, now you see people in their 30s, 40s, 50s and even 60s," he adds.
Almost half of the students at the Art Students League in New York City are 50 years of age or older. While only 2 percent of the students at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston are older than 50, 17 percent of students entering the nearby School of the Museum of Fine Arts in are in that age range.
Going back to school wasn't easy for Ms. Joelsdottir; she was seen as a professional but says she had to humble herself.
She could have saved some pride and tuition by working steadily in her studio, but it might have taken years to reach the same point. "Going to school speeds up the process," she says.
Returning to school was also tough for James Barnhill, who is in his late 70s. As a 33-year veteran teacher and head of the theater department at Brown University in Providence, R.I., he "was used to handing out grades, not receiving them." After retiring from Brown, Mr. Barnhill enrolled in a painting program at the Rhode Island School of Design. "I was not the best," he says. "Some students were spectacular."
Art is a realm of self-discovery, and art school can be valuable even for students who feel established in their sense of themselves.
Dean Keith Simonton, professor of psychology at the University of California at Davis, who has researched creativity in older people, says that when starting over in something new, like art, "It's almost as though they're young again. It's exciting, like first love."
As the majority of students in bachelor's programs are right out of high school, their social and intellectual interests may strike older students as limited. "They haven't lived life out of school," Joelsdottir says. "In some ways, that's a handicap."
Ruth Kristoff, who earned an MFA in sculpture from the University of Massachusetts when she was in her 50s, occasionally found the extreme political and theoretical stances of fellow students abrasive.
"I'm a strong feminist ... but I'm not in-your-face. It seemed in school that art that wasn't in-your-face wasn't really art," she says.
Older students may find that maturity, perspective, and experience will keep them grounded amid a whirl of artistic conceits," Mr. Hope says. "Many older students putting themselves through art school are there because they want to get the knowledge. Younger students are often there because they want to be like someone else."