Returning To College

Houston Tribune March 2005
Bridgette Mongeon © 2005

When entering the movie theater these days, I receive two dollars off of my ticket. Often the attendant examines me with a little disbelief, demanding some proof of identification.  Its not because I am a senior citizen, instead I show my student ID. 

In the past a stereotypical image that most hold of a college student is a young person 18-20 years of age, with a non declared major, who is more excited about the social aspects of college than the educational aspects. However this image is quickly changing.  Students are entering college in their 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, and even later in life.

Categorized as “non-traditional student,” older students face their own set of circumstances that are different from the stereotypical college student.  Sure, we may have to learn how to focus and take notes, all while looking through our progressive lenses, but there are other circumstances that younger students do not have to deal with. Older students have the emotional and financial responsibility of ailing parents and they may also have their own children in college.  Most have established careers and full time jobs.  They have many years of experience in the field of their choice, but many are concerned about losing their jobs because of a younger, degreed person coming up in the ranks. Many people are finding that as the job market becomes more selective and age becomes a factor in the decision of placement, a degree and sometimes advanced degrees are essential. 

There has been a rise in adult learners in higher educational learning of 41% since 1998 according to the National Center for Education statistics.  Many nontraditional students are getting these degrees and never taking a step into a physical building.  With online education and the help of a computer you can study from the comfort of your own home at your convenience. 

By logging into a virtual classroom with other students, distance education makes learning convenient.  For mothers with children, they can put the children down for a nap, put a load of clothes in the dryer, and log into English class. 

Many people are worried about getting duped by diploma mills, spending hours of work for a bogus degree. Mark Wilson, author of Distance Degrees, has made the college search much easier.  The book is filled with 400 accredited colleges that offer distance learning for many different degree programs, and the resources are growing every year. 

When searching for a college the question you want to ask is “are you regionally accredited?”  The United States Department of Education has divided the country up into 6 regions.  There is an accrediting agency for each area.  The Secretary of Education has procedures and criteria that are followed by each of the accrediting agencies. For example The University of Houston has received its accreditation from Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, Vermont College by the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools and Thomas Edison by the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools.  Some college diploma mills will state they are accredited, but you must find who does the accreditation.  If it is not one of the 6 regions then the college may not  be worth your time.  If you are unsure if the college you are interested in is accredited, you can check out the department of Education Website .  Mark Wilson in Distance Degrees has also listed each college’s accreditation and listed a link to the associations that do the accrediting in the 6 regions as well.

Colleges offering class for non-traditional students realize that life experience is an important element of education for older students.  Many colleges offer credits for the experience that an individual has attained through their life times.  This doesn’t have to be experience in things as elaborate as business or science, in fact many times homemakers can find experience that can apply to college credits.  Thomas Edison State College has a resource section to help determine if your past experiences can apply as credit.  Each college handles Prior Learning Assessment (P LA) differently, some accepting portfolios, others requiring essays or individual interviews. Many colleges offer up to 30 credits for PLA.

If you have attended workshops in your field, even if it was learning that was acquired through a non-accredited institution, it may apply to credits toward your degree.  You may; however, need signed documentation from the instructor.  Contact the university that you are interested in to discuss the possibility of accepting these credits.  And if becoming a returning student is in your near future, be sure to ask for documentation from any non- accredited workshops that you are presently taking.

CLEP (College Level Examination Program)
There is a variety of CLEP test that you can take for a nominal fee.  Often one CLEP test can constitute the credits of two classes.  The credits will then apply to your degree program.  CLEP study books can be purchased from any bookstore.  Each book is filled with sample tests and information on what to study for a CLEP. Up to thirty additional credits can be obtained through CLEP examination.

Even if you went to college 20 years ago and did not finish your degree, many colleges will accept these credits toward your degree program.  You may need official transcripts sent to the college of your choice; however having unofficial transcripts on hand will help you to obtain and remember, the number of credits you have. To receive your old transcripts, contact the college that you attended.   There may be a small fee involved in receiving transcripts.

Colleges understand that non-traditional students are professional, experienced, and disciplined individuals and many offer accelerated programs offering degrees at both bachelors, masters, and some even offer PhD’s in a shorter amount of time and less “in class time.” For example, a bachelors degree may take you 4 years at a traditional college as a traditional student but can be obtained at some universities in half the a mount of time.

When you think of going back to school you may be visualizing yourself in a class with many young students, some who are one-third your age.  Or if you have a sense for computers, you may be able to comprehend an online course and distance education.  Some colleges such as Vermont College Union Institute offer an even better way to obtain your degree.  If you are a highly motivated individual you might think about working for your degree doing what you already do and love.  Instead of trying to fit student’s into developed classes and degree programs, Vermont College designs a program around what the students passion is or the direction they want to go.  This enables “learners” to be able to receive their degrees without having to change their focus. 

After taking several online courses myself, through Houston Community College,  I am presently transferring my credits to Vermont College.  Through their program, they will be able to take the articles I write for the Houston Tribune, the books that I am working on, as well as the sculpting that I am presently doing, and with the help of a mentor, develop and use my work as the main portion of my degree program.  I will have to travel to Vermont twice a year for a week each semester.  This type of learning has been dubbed “click and brick”.  A portion of time spent at the college and the rest on the computer.  I can think of worse things than traveling to Vermont during maple syrup time and again in the fall to watch the leaves change.  I’ll be staying in the dorms like a traditional student would. (Which my own college student daughter says is “really weird.”)  In my week visit, I’ll meet with my mentor to discuss my degree plan (work load), visit with other students, and attend workshops, all the while meeting other highly motivated individuals in an academic setting. 

It is normal for non-traditional students to think they are too old to go back to college.  However, Hazel Thompson was Houston Community College’s oldest person, graduating at 82.  Her credits were 50 years old and transferred into the program.  Vermont College Union Institute tells me that the demographics of the students attending their bachelors program is 35-38 and for the masters degree programs 48-50.  However they had a woman receive her bachelor’s degree at 77 and another who received her PhD at 92. 

And, remember going back to college just may be good for your health and mind.  Current advances in brain research by AARP states,  “ Exercising your mind may forestall mental decline by strengthening connections between brain cells.  Intellectual challenge seems to be crucial.” 

You are never too old and it is never too late.  Non-traditional students not only have much to gain from attending college and receiving their degrees, they have much to offer the institutions that teach them and the work force that utilizes their education. 

Though we non-traditional students may not be having dorm parties like traditional students do, perhaps one day all of us older students can get together for a college night a the movies and use our student ID’s.  For the record, if you are a senior and a student there is no additional amount taken off of your movie ticket.  I have already asked!

Distance Degrees– Mark Wilson
Thomas Edison State College (888) 442-8372
Vermont College Union Institute 800.336.6794
Houston Community College distance education 713-718-5275 

Bridgette Mongeon is a writer, sculptor and soon to be student of Vermont College Union Institute.

All written work is copyrighted and cannot be used, whole or impart,
without the written consent of the author.

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