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Adults are back in school, hitting the books

Campuses see increase in number of older students

Although most college students still fall between the ages of 18 and 24, older students have been the fastest-growing group of college students in the last decade.

According to the 2000/2001 SREB (Southern Regional Education Board) Fact Book on Higher Education, the age distribution of college students remained relatively stable in the SREB region and in Mississippi during the 1990s. Students 25 and over increased by 19.1% from fall 1991 to fall 2001 while students under 25 increased by 5.9%.

And while only three out of every 10 students are 25 and over, nowadays colleges are enrolling students far older than 25, 35 and even 45.

“If you don’t have a high school education, you’re out in left field, and now it’s become that you need junior college or college,” said Tim Gordon, who in 1999 decided to go back to school. Now 60, Gordon will receive his certificate of completion of machine shop from Hinds Community College (HCC) this month.

Gordon is among 4.1% of 55-year-old and older students who attend HCC. The total student population of HCC is 14,573. One way HCC attracts students 65 years of age and older is with free tuition for credit and non-credit courses. Senior citizens must clear admissions requirements if classes are taken for credit.

“I should have done this 25 years ago,” Gordon said. “That’s my only regret.”

Gordon is like many nontraditional college students. As branch manager of Trades Unlimited, which provides skilled craftsmen to the construction industry, he decided to go back to school for a certificate in machine shop in order to earn more money and become more marketable.

HCC and other community and junior colleges aren’t the only Mississippi schools that have seen an increased enrollment of older students. Four-year institutions are also enrolling an increasing number of older students.

According to 2002-03 fall enrollment numbers, Alcorn State University, with a total enrollment of 3,150, had 76 students age 50-64. Delta State University had 153 students age 50-64 and 65 students age 65 and over. Mississippi State University had 282 students age 50-64 and nine students age 65 and over. Mississippi University for Women showed an enrollment of 73 students age 50-64 and 12 students age 65 and over. Mississippi Valley State University had an enrollment of 117 students age 50-64 and five students age 65 and over.

The University of Mississippi also had students in the 50-64 age range-165 to be precise — and 25 students enrolled there were 65 and over. And while the University of Mississippi Medical School had just 37 students age 50-64 enrolled and none 65 and over, the University of Southern Mississippi had 350 students age 50-64 and 24 students age 65 and over.

Dr. Pam Smith, spokesperson for the Board of Trustees of the Institutions of Higher Learning, said she has found that people are going back to school because they know it’s possible to earn degrees at nontraditional ages. The IHL board is making an effort to double the number of people over 25 enrolled in classes at institutions across the state.

“We have programs that are offered on the weekends and at night and sometimes early in the morning,” Smith said. “Over the past 10 years we’ve had a 30% increase in students over 25.”

In general, Smith said, older students are a delight for faculty and bring a wealth of experience.

“They’re motivated, their maturity is very much appreciated by the faculty —they’re just a different kind of student who is very much valued in the classroom,” Smith said. “I was an older adult student a few years ago and it’s fun to be in a classroom. You rejuvenate yourself and it’s something everyone who is interested should do. And we think we’re making it easier and easier for adults to do that.”

Seventy-eight-year-old Jackson resident Rowan Taylor, who recently finished his coursework for a Ph.D. in history at MSU, started back to school at MSU in 1996 when he was 72 for a master’s degree in history. Taylor had majored in physics as an undergraduate, then went to law school and was later president and CEO of Mississippi Valley Title Insurance. But Taylor, who also holds an MBA, said he always had an interest in liberal arts.

“I was retired and I’m not a person who likes to sit around,” Taylor said. “I gave up golf a long time ago and took up running but it got to where I couldn’t do that anymore.”

So his interest turned to academia, a natural one since Taylor had served on the Jackson School Board for about 10 years during the ‘80s, and was appointed to the State Board of Education in 1996, and again last year for another full term.

“I have four grandchildren ranging in age from 20 to 26 and they really think I’m nuts, but that’s all right,” Taylor said. “I’m having a good time.”

Dr. Dorris Gardner, dean of the Jackson State University Graduate School, said older adults are becoming more common in the classroom for a number of reasons.

“Some got early retirement or maybe their company offered them some kind of incentive to retire early and they’re coming back and looking for a second career,” Gardner said.

Among the most popular courses for 55-year-old and older students offered by JSU are those that relate to computer science, business administration, public health, English, research and real estate.

“I think they (students who are 55 and older) add a dimension of maturity to the classroom,” Gardner said. “They also are very competitive, and this tends to create a much stronger learning environment for our traditional graduate students.”

Suzanne Sullivan, director of traditional undergraduate admissions at Belhaven College, said older students enroll to either finish a degree or because they miss their school years.

“Others may have time on their hands and just want to go back,” Sullivan said.

Tanya Brieger, director of enrollment services for the Belhaven College Aspire program, said while there are a few students in the 55-plus and even 60-plus age range, the average age of students in the Aspire program is 35. And while Brieger agreed that some older students are in search of career changes, the biggest reason for going back to school, bar none, is self-gratification.

“It just makes people feel good about themselves to have a college degree, and it’s something that no one can take away from them,” Brieger said.

Dean Harold “Nick” Nichols, of the MSU Meridian campus, where between 5% and 7% of enrollment is students over 50 (five to 50 students per semester) over the past four semesters, guessed that an increasing number of older adults are going back to school for many reasons. First and foremost, most are going back because of the flexibility of class schedules so many schools now offer, whether classes are offered at night, on weekends or online. Whatever the reason, older adults are going back to school, and Nichols finds it a delight to have older students in the classroom.

“They bring a wealth of real-world experience to the classroom that traditional students haven’t had,” Nichols said. “So that improves and enhances the dynamic of the classroom.”

Gordon, for one, said he’d highly recommend that anyone, no matter what their age, get their college degree or certificate if that’s something they want.

Taylor agreed. “I would encourage everybody to do it,” he said. “I think everybody has an interest of some special sort that they would like to know more about and never had the chance to explore and if they get the opportunity, which I was fortunate enough to have, then they ought to do it.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Elizabeth Kirkland at
ekirkland@msbusiness.com or (601) 364-1042.


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