Back to school for boomers
Honk if you’ve ever had this dream: your late-middle-aged self is planted right in the middle of that Psychology 101 course you took your freshman year of college — and not only haven’t you read the day’s assignment, the professor is about to hand out the midterm exam and you haven’t so much as cracked a book all semester. Nightmare… or accurate recollection of days long gone? It needn’t be either, actually. The fact is, boomers are heading back to school in increasing numbers, meaning you can experience this priceless bit of embarrassment in real life (albeit hopefully better prepared this time and with most of your clothes still on).
According to the American Association of Community Colleges, 15 percent of the 13 million people who were community college students in 2012 were over the age of 40 — and cutting off the lower edge of that age range accounts for at least a few hundred thousand (and possibly as many as a million) boomers over 50. About 58 percent of all students were enrolled part time, and a whopping five million took non-credit courses, meaning they matriculated purely for the social life on campus and a love of learning rather than as a necessity to train for a new job. (Experts say that the vast majority of boomers heading back to school choose community colleges, which are cheaper and more commuter-friendly than the usual four-year “prestige” schools.)
According to Nancy Merz Nordstrom, author of Learning Later, Living Greater: The Secret for Making the Most of Your After-50 Years, boomers take non-credit courses mainly for three reasons: “One, they want to keep their minds active and healthy now that they no longer have the stimulation of working; two, they want to learn fun things they never had time for earlier in life; and three, they want to socialize with other like-minded adults who love learning.”
So let’s say you’ve decided to head back to school, both to indulge your joy in learning and to meet (and possibly date) those like-minded adults. What should you watch out for? Here are a few tips:
1. Love your subject.
Probably the worst mistake a back-to-school boomer can make is to choose a class based purely on the caliber of people he or she expects to meet there rather than being genuinely interested in the subject matter that’s being taught. If you’ve always been fascinated by ancient Egyptian civilization, you’ll enjoy that History of Hieroglyphics class even if it’s devoid of eligible singles. If economics bores you to tears, don’t bother taking a course in it. Your disdain for the subject will be evident to others who share your class... and in any case, they’ll be too focused on learning how to make money to pay any attention to you.
2. Stick with your own age group.
Enrolling in a class full of young students when you’re pushing 70 might seem like a way to recapture your youth, but it’s really a surefire formula for social isolation and a less-than-ideal learning experience if you don’t do a little research first. Says Nordstrom, “selecting a program that focuses on working adults makes things much easier. I first tried a regular undergraduate program and didn’t like it, but once I entered a non-traditional college for working adults, it was wonderful. If you’re 50, 60 or even 70, being lumped in with people aged 18 to 20 is, shall we say, a real challenge.”
3. Make the most of your life experience.
Carol Osborn, a poster on the VibrantNation.com message boards, says that “I started on the track to my Ph.D. in my late forties and completed it in my early fifties, and yes, it was overwhelming, especially at first. But I soon realized that, compared to my younger classmates, my age was an amazing advantage. I had common sense about what was important in terms of studies, reading, relationships with my professors, etc., while many of the younger folks were trying to please everybody all the time with a brutal perfectionism that I recall having at a younger stage in my life.”
4. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
“Womanspeak,” another poster on VibrantNation.com who graduated at 54 with combined bachelor’s and master’s degrees, has good advice for boomers taking hardcore courses — whether they’re for credit or not: “Network on campus to find a study buddy and don’t be afraid to ask for tutoring in the subjects in which you’re less skilled (higher math, perhaps, or the sciences). You will make friends and also be energized by the other students and the educational environment.” Fortunately, today’s college-bound boomers have access to a resource that wasn’t available the first time around: the Internet. Any community college worth its course fees should provide detailed guidance and advice for enrolled students online.
5. Take advantage of your opportunities.
So you’re taking a course you love and getting to know your fellow students — now’s the time to strike up a conversation with that shy gent or lady who shares your interest in Mesopotamian art. Says Nordstrom: “In non-credit courses, dating and marriage happen regularly amongst students. Widows, widowers and divorced people join for that needed socialization, and the fact that they share a love of learning is a contributing factor in bringing them together. I know of one couple that met up again after 40 years (they knew each other when they were young) through an educational travel program, and they got married while they were on the trip!”
Bob Strauss is a freelance writer and children’s book author who lives in New York City. He’s also written the Dinosaur guide on About.com, the online information network owned by the New York Times.