Hitting the books after years of work

Sarah Lawrence College reaches out to adults who decide it's time to get that undergrad degree

Tammie Englert had been out of high school and working as a paralegal for almost a decade when something strange happened. "I just sort of fell in love -believe it or not -with homework," she recalls.

Ms. Englert had enrolled in a course on women's literature at a local community college near her hometown of Allentown, Pa. Doing the assigned reading for the class "awakened the fire in me," Englert explains. "I suddenly realized there was another world I was missing out on."

Four years later, Englert finds herself squarely in the middle of that world. A senior at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y., she's now only a few months away from graduation and planning to live in New York and pursue her love of writing plays.

But these dramatic life changes might not have come about, Englert says, if she hadn't discovered the Center for Continuing Education at Sarah Lawrence. Deciding to go college some years after your friends have finished their degrees, says Englert, "is very intimidating."

But it's something ever-increasing numbers of adults decide to do. Many adults, of course, take a course or two over the years that will boost skills or improve job opportunities. But for women particularly, the prospect of completing a full degree that was sidetracked by family obligations or work, while daunting, can be worth a temporary upheaval.

At Sarah Lawrence, about 90 older students mix with the younger student population of about 1,000 kids.

Perhaps because of Sarah Lawrence's tradition as a women's college - it became coeducational in 1969 - women make up the bulk of the enrollment at the center. Only occasionally does a male student enroll.

But the school says it serves a more-diverse population now than it once did. "It's a more heterogeneous group now," says Joelle Sander, associate director at the center. "We get more different ethnic and racial backgrounds than we used to." The program also draws students not just from surrounding towns but from across the United States and occasionally overseas.

First-day jitters

One factor has remained the same, however: hesitation about setting foot on campus at a time when most peers are pulling down paychecks. "Today's older students are troubled with the same issues of self-esteem and self-confidence as the adult students of the past," says Alice Olson, the center's director. But, she notes, older students have a powerful motivation."In our society, and particularly in a highly educated world, people are unbelievably ashamed of not having finished school."

That's why the Sarah Lawrence program is designed to ease older students into campus life as gently as possible. Newcomers take their first four courses exclusively at the center with other older students, in groups of no more than 12. Only later do they enroll in regular campus courses with young students.

The slow transition to mainstream campus life and the chance to get to know other adult students first creates "an on-campus community that the older students treasure," says Ms. Olson. Older students are also exempted from the need to take college-entrance exams like the SAT, although the school requires an application process that includes interviews and transcripts.

Of course, nontraditional students are hardly a rarity today. When the small liberal-arts school first created its Center for Continuing Education in 1962, adult education was just getting off the ground. "That opened a door that was literally closed," says Olson. "Today almost every school in the country has some means of serving adults."

More women than men

But that doesn't mean that undertaking a program is an easy choice. According to a recent survey by the American Association of University Women, women often perceive a midlife return to school as more difficult than do men. For instance, only 3 percent of older men returning to school saw their age as an obstacle, while 18 percent of women saw their age as a barrier to success.

Then there's the issue of cost. Choosing to attend a private school like Sarah Lawrence carries a higher price tag than do most community colleges or state schools. Older students are charged the same tuition as younger ones, which is about $4,135 for a five-credit course.

Such considerations didn't trouble Englert. "I knew that the quality of this experience was what I wanted," she says. "I saw it as a life investment." She qualified for two scholarships offered through the center, cutting her payments in half.

Paying tuition

Not every returning student has the benefit of tuition reduction. Maria Sweeney pays full tuition as an adult student at Sarah Lawrence. She says other schools might have been less expensive but she wanted the prestige the well-established school offered.

Ms. Sweeney worked as a registered nurse for 20 years before returning to school. A native of the Philippines, she had originally dropped out of high school at the age of 15. She eventually got an equivalency degree and went to nursing school. For some time after that, she thought she was done with school.

But after two decades of nursing, she says, "I could do my job with my eyes closed." She decided that she'd really like to practice law. But first she'd need a bachelor's degree.

So she picked up the phone and called Sarah Lawrence. That first phone call, she says, "was the hardest part of the whole experience."

Now that she's in the program, Sweeney says she loves the way it has broadened her mental horizons. However, she admits, the constant time pressures haven't been easy. She's continued to work full time and also has a three-year-old son. There was a day recently when she had to stay home from a family function to do homework, and she says, "I just sat down and cried."

Sarah Lawrence professors are also conscious of the particular challenges faced by older students. Dave McCree, a professor of theater at the school, taught his first class at the center this summer, and says he was aware of a level of nervousness among the adult students.

"Some of them hadn't written a paper in years and they're not used to the form," he notes.

Never having worked with adult students before, McCree says, "I didn't really know what to expect."

A few of the initial papers, he discovered, did show need of direction and attention. But, "by the third paper they had all improved dramatically," he reports.

*E-mail: coeymanm@csps.com

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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