An his early 60s, Donald Maxwell retired from a long, successful career as the director of research at a major US corporation. But instead of going golfing he enrolled at the University of Michigan for his second PhD, this one in French literature.
Along with the usual challenges of an advanced degree program, Mr. Maxwell had to endure some stares and strange questions.
"When you first walk into a class of students they look at you and become quiet," he says. "They ask if you are from the dean's office or a friend of the professor."
Maxwell was generally encouraged in his studies, but many seniors returning to school are not. As competitive and difficult as universities are for 20 year-olds, seniors in many cases are finding it even harder than the first time around to get in and fit in.
Older students "will get a lot of naysayers, saying 'You're 57, what do you mean you're going to start over?' " says Carole Fungaroli, author of the forthcoming book "Traditional Degrees for Nontraditional Students: How to earn a top diploma from America's great colleges at any age" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).
Despite the obstacles, more people than ever in their 50s and 60s are returning to school - not just for personal enrichment but to start new careers.
"They've become an increasing percentage of members of college communities and a very interesting one," says Peter Awn, dean of the School of General Studies at Columbia University in New York. "People are living longer, taking early retirement, are fairly affluent to be able to return to school, and want to start another career."
In the next 20 years, the population of Americans over 65 is expected to double to 70 million, according to the government's Administration on Aging. And as energetic baby boomers head into retirement, the trend of getting degrees at a later age is likely to grow.
But so far, senior students are still a novelty on campus.
"There's an inherent, maybe subtle bias against seniors," says Leon Pastalan, a professor at the University of Michigan who studies retirement and aging. "It may sound terrible but it's true. Somebody in their 60s shows up and it's, 'Gosh, what are you going to do for us?'"
The first hurdle is admissions. While many schools have continuing education programs that welcome students of all ages, it can be difficult for older students to get into a graduate program.
"I don't think it makes much of a difference in admission to an undergraduate or master's program, but at the PhD level, yes, there's discrimination," says Harold Cox, a professor of sociology at Indiana State University in Terre Haute who specializes in gerontology. He imagines the admissions committee considering, "'Well, we give five years' education and she's 57, how many years will she be teaching, anyway?' "
Some fields, such as social work and education, are more amenable to seniors starting over. Anne Minich worked in fund-raising for 20 years before starting a master's program in social work this fall at Columbia University. She says she was nervous about revealing she was in her 60s, but at the admissions interview she was told, "A good social worker is worth developing. If you're a good social worker for five or 10 years, that's great."
Other professional schools can be nearly impossible, admitting students only if they have already had a successful, related career. "If you get a 60-year-old with no background who says, 'Now I want to go to business school,' they'll say, 'What's been going on for the past 30 years?' " Mr. Awn says.
Engineering, accounting, and medicine are other fields seemingly stacked against seniors. Robert Lopatin is drawing attention for having graduated from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York this spring at the age of 55. But when he had first approached a premed program, an adviser told him, "You're not going to get into medical school."
One of the reasons Mr. Lopatin succeeded was that he convinced the schools that he truly wanted to work as a doctor rather than just getting through medical school for the challenge.
"There's such a thing as going back to get a degree for vanity, to have the title," says Martin Hamburger, professor emeritus at New York University. "If someone wants to have a career, they're more likely to be accepted."
Rejecting an applicant just because he or she is old is, of course, illegal. "Everyone is dancing around the legal issue of age discrimination," Awn says. "Will they tell you it's because of your age? No, of course not. They'll find 20 other reasons why to reject you."
The bias toward young students is evident, though, even on the admissions and financial-aid forms. The latter commonly asks applicants how much money their parents will be contributing towards their education. And it is harder for older students to get scholarships and other funding, according to Ms. Fungaroli. "There's a lot of money earmarked for single moms struggling their way through, but grandma is going to have more trouble," she says.
There is a silver lining to the golden years, however. State schools frequently give free tuition to those over 65.
And professors say they appreciate mature students. "We teachers don't have any passionate love of the 18 to 22 year-old," says Fungaroli, who teaches English at Georgetown University in Washington. "That's our bread-and-butter, but we know how capable the other students are."
What senior students who are admitted lack is a peer group. "You never really have a colleague," says Maxwell, who now teaches French literature at the University of Michigan. "The students are too young and the professors can't be, so you have to be a bit of a loner."
He says that the young students, once they get used to the idea, are mostly encouraging. "They say things like, 'I wish my dad would do that!' "
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society