Schoolhouse Rock, Take Two

By Melissa Conroy

When you graduated from high school, it’s likely that the only students at college were in their teens or early twenties. College was essentially the haunt of the young and foolish, providing newly minted adults a place to obtain an education, consume controlled substances and occasionally run around campus with live frogs stuffed down their pants.

College has changed dramatically. Yes, young college students still drink too much, wear lampshades on their heads and engage in other foolish activity. (Only difference: Today they are hairbrained enough to post photographic evidence on Facebook for the world to see.) However, on today’s college campus, you cannot assume that every person with gray hair is either a faculty member or a parent. Many middle-aged people and senior citizens are dusting off their mortarboards, having sticker shock over current textbook and tuition prices, and heading back to college years or decades after leaving the classroom. In 2007, the 95-year-old Nola Ochs proudly marched across stage to claim not only her undergraduate diploma but the title of the World’s Oldest College Graduate. If she can do it, why not you?

If you have ever thought about completing your college degree, trying out some new classes for fun or even (gulp) going for an entirely new degree to make a gigantic career change, this is the perfect time to do so. The U.S. college system today is not just for young people. Colleges have an enormous amount to offer to people of all ages and walks of life.

But it takes some work and planning before you return to the lecture hall. College has changed dramatically in other ways during the past several decades, for good and for bad. Let’s start with the bad.

Cost: It is no secret that college is ridiculously expensive. The Web site says the average annual tuition charged by a four-year public university is $6,585 and rising. Private schools or out-of-state tuition is even higher. Textbooks are another enormous expense. It is not uncommon for one textbook to cost anywhere from $100 to $200 dollars. College students also have many other fees they need to shell out for: parking passes, activity fees, lab fees, student fees and other charges that can add up. All told, going to college is usually an expensive endeavor.

Technology: Gone are the days of tiny, cramped student desks, overhead projectors and dusty blackboards. Many college classrooms today are extremely high-tech, and a number of classes utilize technology to a high degree. If you are well behind the technological learning curve, you may have trouble working with the new gadgets needed to complete a course.

Now for the good news. 

More for you: Colleges (particularly community colleges) have quite diverse student bodies. As a result, most colleges have excellent resources for students in need and offer many services such as tutoring, technology instruction, activities and other programs to help students succeed.

Benefits: A college student ID card is a great way to get discounts at many places such as movies and restaurants. Plus, most colleges offer many different concerts, seminars, sessions, workshops and many other activities that you can attend free or at low cost.

Opportunities: Education opens the doors to numerous opportunities. You’ll learn about service projects, overseas studies and jobs. You’ll make connections with professors and experts, all of whom can suggest new ideas and activities. Even if you do not actually complete a degree, simply taking a few classes and immersing yourself in college life is a wonderful way to discover new paths and endeavors.

Once you have decided to jump back into the academic world, you’ll need to choose what type of college you will attend: private, public or community. Private colleges can be excellent but also very expensive. Public colleges tend to be quite massive and may offer opportunities that private colleges do not. In the past, community colleges had a rather a poor reputation, but these institutions have increased in quality and respectability. Community colleges tend to be the least expensive, but many do not offer four-year degrees. Many students choose to take their general elective courses at a community college where it is least expensive, then transfer to a four-year college when their electives are done.

When you have selected a college, make an appointment with an academic adviser or counselor. You’ll need to turn over any existing college records so your counselor can determine what classes count toward your major and what will transfer. Don’t be surprised if you need to retake some classes you took a long time ago. Some colleges are fussy about letting you transfer credits, and programs and majors change over time, rendering old classes moot.

Although your adviser can be a terrific asset, you also need to talk to a professor or instructor in your department. A teacher will be better able to advise you about what courses you need to take and what plans you need to firm up. Success in college depends largely on your own initiative, so strike up a relationship with someone in your department that you admire so that you can seek their advice.

Going to class the first day might be a little intimidating, but I’ll let you in on a secret: College professors love older learners. They are typically much more mature, focused and hard-working than the 18–year-olds that usually fill a college classroom. On the flip side, these young ones are also a blast to have in the classroom. College students are wonderful despite the occasional questionable decisions or needless drama they make a part of their lives. At this stage of life, they are bursting with creativity, curiosity and energy; their boundless optimism and enthusiasm is infectious. However, if you want to see this energy in full display, don’t sign up for any classes before 10 a.m.

As you are settling back into the rhythm of college, be sure to spend time simply wandering around on campus. Go into buildings that you have not visited before, look for student art galleries, investigate all the floors of the library, hunt for out-of-the-way computer labs. Most colleges have hidden nooks and crannies that are worth exploring. Much of being a college student is simply hanging around college with no particular agenda. A college campus is always full of interesting events, and there is a regular ebb and flow to a semester that is comfortingly predictable.

With today’s colleges more accommodating to older learners, it’s a more comfortable option for you. Even if you don’t end up earning a degree, college offers a multitude of benefits for those who choose to try their luck at higher education.

Melissa Conroy is a Nebraska-based freelance writer who teaches writing and literature at two local colleges. In her free time, she enjoys gardening, practicing martial arts and talking to her basset hound, Erasmus. She can be reached at [email protected]


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