As a non-traditional student going back to college after a lapse of enrollment of eighteen years, I was very apprehensive about whether I would have trouble fitting in. I worried that I would look foolish for being the oldest person in a class full of traditional aged students (18-24). I was concerned about what the faculty would think of me as I would probably be around the same age some of my professors. Worst of all, I feared that I had wasted my youth by having waited too long to return to school, having fallen way behind my friends who did not drop out of college and were thriving in their chosen careers.
In my previous experience, college was a young person’s domain. I do not recall ever seeing a person over the age of twenty five in any of my classes (on those rare occasions I did attend class) and if I did encounter a person significantly older than myself on campus, I assumed that he/she was a professor. But within the last fifteen years, the face of college has changed dramatically. Non–traditional students (25+) are flocking back to school for myriad reasons, ranging from wanting to learn new skills, to fulfilling a life-long dream, or to just finish a journey they started many years ago.
All of my worst fears disappeared on my first day of school, sitting in my college algebra class when a man who looked to be in his sixties sat down next to me. We exchanged smiles, relieved grins that seemed to say, “Thank goodness I am not alone! We are not the only old people in school and there are many more just like us!” We instantly became study buddies. Encountering this camaraderie had me thinking about the differences between traditional and non-traditional students. Were we all in school for the same fundamental reasons? Does the faculty treat younger and older students differently? Do older students have an edge over younger students in the current economic climate?
The results of my research were surprising. Indeed, there is very little that separates younger and older students, except age and life experience. Parental and societal pressure has very little influence on students regardless of age. Both traditional and non-traditional students were unanimous in saying that they were in school because they really wanted to go to college. They all agree that having a college degree is very important for their plans for the future. “If a degree wasn’t necessary, I would opt to forgo school and go straight to teaching elementary school,” says Corey, 21. “My parents didn’t necessarily pressure me and were kind enough to help pay for me to attend.” Suzanne, 46, also realizes that college is the place to go help decide what to do in the future. “When my youngest daughter Sophia went into first grade, I found myself with six hours a day of free time. I didn’t have any idea what I wanted to do with my life after raising kids for almost twenty years and I felt that college was a good place to figure that out.”
The social aspect of college is viewed differently by younger and older students. While making friends and having a good time is an important part of the college experience, partying is regarded as less of a novelty to older students than it is to their twenty-one year old counterparts. However, all parties (pun intended) agree that business comes before pleasure. When asked if she had trouble balancing schoolwork with her social life Sharon, 21, replied, “I organize my social life around my schoolwork and while that does not always work very well, I am coping the best that I can. That’s not to say that I don’t occasionally skip my homework in favor of going out with friends.” Older students are much less interested in the social aspect of school, opting to forgo making close friends and attending social events in order to concentrate on their studies. “My partying days still exist but on a much smaller scale and are independent of the college experience and are wholly different then the way I behaved in my early twenties, says Chris, 36. “I haven’t been seeking friends but at the same time don’t keep myself closed off to the possibility.”
When asked if they thought faculty members treated younger students differently from older students, those surveyed say they do not perceive any outward difference and pretty much left it at that, but when posing the same question to a faculty member, a professor in the English Department, I received a very enlightening response. “I try not to accord more respect to older students, attempting to treat all students equally. However, most older students are more respectful and carry themselves like professionals in a way that some others usually do not; therefore, I suspect that I respond and treat them in kind.” Although faculty members often find themselves teaching students who are the same age as they are, they do not consider older students to be their peers. “Though I may share some similar cultural experiences with certain older students, I do not regard them as peers. Contemporaries, yes, but to regard a student as a peer would erase the professionalism from our relationship and I believe that would be detrimental to both of us, but particularly to the student.”
The last question posed to traditional and non-traditional students was a hypothetical one. When asked if two job candidates, one younger the other about ten years older, with the same level of education, were in the running for the same job, who they feel has the better chance of being hired, the answers boiled down to a single deciding factor, previous life experience. “I definitely think that I would be at a disadvantage if I was competing with someone with more life experience,” says Sharon, 21. “Someone older has had more opportunities for personal and professional development. If I was hiring for the job, I would portably assume that the older candidate is better qualified for the position. Corey, also 21, agrees; “I feel that maybe the culmination of a lack of life experience and a lack of ‘need’ for the job, a need to provide for a family as well as myself, would make me pale in comparison.”
Non-traditional students also feel that having more life experience will most likely put them over the edge of a younger job candidate. “In some respects, I feel I have a better shot at the job,” says Chris, 36. “I feel for a lot of employers, life experience goes a long way. I feel more confident now than I did ten years ago as well.” Suzanne, the oldest student surveyed, likewise concurs that age and experience gives older students a distinct advantage. “Actually, I can’t say that I feel I would have just as good of a chance as one who is younger than myself in acquiring a job because I feel that my age would work for me and not against me. As an older individual, I feel that I have a greater sense of responsibility and dedication to offer my future employer that a younger applicant may not yet possess because of lack of life experience.”
In light of these responses, it is safe to conclude that not much separates traditional and non-traditional students. We all seem to take school seriously, we all tend to wear the same uniform (jeans, T-shirts, sneakers, backpack) to class, and we all have an overwhelming instinct to succeed. In this instance, age is only a number but experience is big plus.