When I was in middle school, one of the many things I could count on from my mother was that, despite her blaring alarm clock and my knocking on her door, she just would not wake up in the morning to make my lunch.
Looking back, I can understand why.
She spent her weeknights reading Shakespeare, typing papers and creating lesson plans.
At age 34, with a house to maintain and a family to care for, she became a full-time college student after a career as a registered nurse. She was studying English education, pursuing a long-standing dream on which she finally decided to act. So at age 39, when she graduated with high honors from West Chester University, she became the first woman in our family to have a college degree, a source of great pride for her and our family.
And don’t worry – she always gave me money to buy lunch at school.
Now that I’m in college and have an appreciation for the amount of work involved, I understand the sacrifice when I could easily be working for $10 an hour as a file clerk for the rest of my twenties. I don’t even wake up early to make lunch for myself, much less a family like she had.
The point is that it’s an especially brave and commendable act when anyone decides to go back to college, not just to college for the first time.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the total enrollment of students aged 35 and older has been projected to rise to a total of 3.3 million from 2002 to 2014. In the same timeframe, part-time enrollment of students has been projected to rise by 14 percent to 7.6 million. According to the 2000 census, the demographic that saw the greatest rise in college students was women aged 30 or older.
These statistics indicate that older adults – baby boomers in particular – are actively choosing to go back to college, even though many of them have children and have had one or more careers unrelated to their fields of study.
But these students come from a very different cultural context. Back when they were graduating high school, there wasn’t as strong of a social pressure to attend college as much as there was a financial imperative to enter the workforce.
As the job market shifts away from unskilled, semi-skilled and industrial labor to higher-skilled, service-based and managerial positions, those with the most relevant and extensive education are rewarded with better jobs and responsibilities, and in turn, much better pay.
Rather than allowing themselves
to be outsourced or downsized, many are seeking the additional tools necessary to remain marketable to employers in the new economy, and thus decide to head back to class.
But there is another influential
factor that cannot be measured in dollars – the desire for self-betterment. The classroom experiences I have had with older, part-time students show them to be a motivated, engaged and enthusiastic portion of our student population. They have chosen to sacrifice time for their education from their work and family obligations, and so they make the most of their time.
They have often been the most vocal and active members of my classes – the first to ask questions, volunteer answers and to put themselves on the line. They rarely miss class and always contribute to a positive environment.
This certainly cannot be easy when they are surrounded by people in their same position, but are half their age.
I have noticed that at times, younger students are taken aback by the zealousness of these older students, perhaps unused to such eagerness in a culture in which college has become, for many, just an immediate extension of high school. The younger “I dare you to teach me, I just had an exhausting flag football game” attitude
clashes with the “I dare you not to teach me, I’m paying $631 per credit hour” attitude of older students.
Younger students can learn something from their older peers: The best motivation to be in college is, in fact, for the education and that they should take advantage of it now, rather than when they are older and have to catch up.
Brian Krier can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.