Midlife Thesis 

Back to School ’07: Need a new thrill? You’re never too old to earn a college degree.

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Remember that crazy, zigzagging, erratic mix of excitement, nervousness and fear of the unknown you used to get on the first day of school? It’s still like that in college, even if you’re over 30. A new year is uncoiling before you, full of possibilities, opportunities and the hectic whirl of campus life that will sweep you up and deposit you on the other side—hopefully wiser in all respects.

As a 38-year-old communications major at Westminster College, I am part of a demographic known as “nontraditional” students. Most Utah institutions define this group as financially independent undergraduate students 25 or older who may be married or have dependents, among other possible qualities.

Before I decided to rejoin the ranks of academia, I enlisted in the U.S. Marines at 19, thinking I should see the world. And I did satisfy my wanderlust to a large degree, visiting Japan, North and South Carolina, Virginia and California. When I came home to Utah eight years later, I worked for a wholesale-paper and industrial supplier for another eight years but was told that, in order to advance, a college degree was a necessity, not a nicety. So, I quit my job and begged my husband’s indulgence for the next four years. I usually carry a 15-16 credit-hour load, work part-time, sing in the choir and am active in most theater productions—my self-made “hectic” whirl, if ever there was one.

As many nontraditional students will attest, one’s social life goes out the window after classes begin. Those who are married have to block out time for spouses and often stay up studying long after their mates have trundled off to bed. Students with kids have to squeeze in dinner and a bedtime story on top of their very full days.

Many have to shelve favorite activities for the duration. I bade a temporary goodbye to my passions for contra dancing and horseback riding. For City Weekly’s circulation manager, Larry Carter, married with two young daughters and a business student at Salt Lake Community College, it was fishing. “I used to go fishing every week,” he says. “Now I might get to go on a holiday like Memorial Day, if I get the day off from work.” One thing the 43-year-old Carter finds challenging is being the oldest student in the class. His recall of high school history and math is fuzzy at best and seeing how easy it is for 19-year-olds to recall their high-school lessons can be daunting. “The math lab at SLCC has become my second home,” he said.

But, despite the stress, many nontrads find they enjoy almost “collegial” relationships with professors.

Paul Pressons, a professor and provost for institutional research and assessment at Westminster College, says he enjoys having nontrads in his classes. “I was a nontraditional student myself,” he says, “enrolling when I was 30, so I can relate to the experiences they’re having.” The reasons he likes them in class are twofold: “They bring life experience and real-world knowledge to the classroom and our discussions. The second reason is purely selfish. I like having someone in the room that remembers Kennedy and knows who the Beatles were,” he says with a smile.

Elaine Harris, 53, is both an employee and student at the University of Utah. As a first-generation student in her family, she was inspired to enroll by her daughter, also a nontraditional student at the U. While she enjoys being a student, she realizes it would have been easier when she was younger. “I have a harder time memorizing and reading at night after having worked on a computer all day,” she says. “I come home tired and, you know, the mind goes south somewhere, and you can’t focus as well at 2 in the morning,” she said. She has also seen a downturn in her eating habits. Like many college students, she grabs fast food more often than healthy stuff and studies rather than working out.

So, while it may not be easy to teach old dogs new tricks, humans can stretch their brains at any age. In addition to learning new skills, theories and tenets, nontrads become accomplished jugglers of school, work, marriage and kids. In four or five short years (who’s counting?), any dedicated adult may possess a degree of higher education, which just may lead to an elevated life in Utah.

Nontrads in the mix:
Percentage of nontraditional students of total undergraduate enrollment in Utah higher education

University of Utah
Students over age 25
1999: 50.25 percent
2003: 48.84 percent
2007: 50.10 percent

Salt Lake Community College
Students over age 25
1999: 33.66 percent
2003: 31.25 percent
2007: 34.25 percent

Westminster College*
Students over age 24
1993: 51.4 percent
2003: 25.9 percent
2006: 24.9 percent

Weber State University, Ogden
Students over age 25
1999: 40.17 percent
2003: 35.83 percent
2007: 41.75 percent

Utah Valley State College
Students over age 25
1999: 30.66 percent
2003: 29.50 percent
2007: 32.49 percent

Data: Utah State Office of Higher Education report
*Private Institution: School provided data{::NOAD::}

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Philina Saltas

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