Lifelong Learning: Older Students in College

This blog is a guest post from my Spring 2019 intern, Anshul Agrawal.

From a young age, we are taught to follow a very simple path: go to school, complete your degree, land a job, earn and save as much as you can, and then retire comfortably. But do we have to think in such linear terms? I am a full-time college student, but this semester I have also enjoyed interning part-time at AARP. Similarly, the past few decades have seen a rise in the number of older Americans who are getting back in the classroom. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, students over the age of 35, including many age 50 and up, are expected to comprise about 15% of total college enrollments by 2020.

In addition to the popular community college classes, there are programs all over the country for older adults who wish to audit classes or even earn credits at respected undergraduate institutions. I had the privilege of speaking to some of these non-traditional students on my own college campus. When asked about their motivation to reenter the classroom, they all expressed a passion for lifelong learning, emphasizing that they didn’t see education as a finite experience.

I spoke to one auditor who spent a lot of his career overseas with the U.S. Foreign Service. After retiring, he wanted to take classes as a way to “stay plugged in” to his many interests within and beyond his career field. Speaking fondly of the academic and intellectual atmosphere he sees, he praised the professors and students in his classes for being so open to discussion. He remarked that his professors have been willing to engage with auditors even outside of class time. He also appreciated that students treat auditors like “partners in the class” and make him feel comfortable contributing to class discussions when he has “something unique to mention.” In this way, so-called “typical” students like me get to benefit from a more experienced perspective. This auditor also noted how he has learned from the students, specifically pointing to extensive student-led social justice activism on campus.

The mutually beneficial relationship between more mature and traditional students in a classroom comes directly from having this “different kind of diversity,” as another older student put it. This gentleman values the opportunity to explore fields that he missed in his own undergraduate experience, as well as interacting with students from a different generation. Above all, he noted that, as a retired person, taking university classes “keeps me focused and keeps my mind grappling with big issues, big ideas.” While his fellow students get to learn from his experiences in the workforce, he also gets the chance to discuss “different issues like race, ethnicity, [and] gender,” which feature much more prominently in the campus atmosphere than when he first went to college.

In addition to class discussions that grapple with broader social issues, the older students I spoke to commented on how teaching styles have changed. Another student, a former professor herself, observed how today’s technology has affected the learning experience with professors integrating various forms of media (e.g., films, YouTube videos) into their curricula, and students now have a vast supply of resources and tools for research at their disposal. More generally, she noticed that today’s classrooms employ a more varied approach to learning, citing “much more class participation” and “more elements that go into grading.” She also noted that professors are more accountable to their students, with the increasing prevalence of student evaluations on faculty performance. Students also have access to much more one-on-one feedback outside of class, like in campus writing centers, which she considers a terrific development. As someone who has “always been in and out of the academic world,” she enjoys keeping herself well-acquainted with the latest in education.

This kind of intellectual stimulation seems to be a very enriching and fulfilling way to spend one’s retirement, and it can be a good way to stay on top of the rapid pace of change in our society. If you are also interested in getting back into the classroom, College Factual has ranked the best colleges for non-traditional students. AARP also has a number of online resources that may be helpful to you, starting with a list of questions to consider when making the decision to return to school. You may also want to research free programs in your area and look into financial aid options, as college is more expensive now than ever before.

I hope that I can embody the spirit of these lifelong learners in my own attitude toward my education going forward.

Anshul Agrawal is an intern for AARP. An undergraduate student at Georgetown University majoring in Government and Economics, he is interested in issues of equality and justice for all communities. In the future, he hopes to pursue a degree in law.  

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