Sunday, April 7, 2013

University of Memphis, Other Colleges See Increase and Impact of Older, Non-Traditional Students

University of Memphis, Other Colleges See Increase and Impact of Older, Non-Traditional Students
By:  Michael G. Lander

When most people think of college students, they probably envision someone who is young, who is just coming out of high school, and who has most of their life still ahead of them.  For many of those entering college, this is often the case, but there are some college students who are older, some who are middle-aged, and still others who are even senior citizens. 

Universities and colleges are seeing a slow but steady increase of an older population deciding to enroll in college, some of them for the first time and others to finish a college degree that they may have started the pursuit of many years before.

Mike Davis is one of these older students.  He is 35 years old and he initially enrolled at the University of Memphis as an undergraduate student in 1999. 

"I attended for three semesters and left to take a job in graphic design," Davis said. 

He returned as a full-time college student in 2010 and expects to graduate in May with a bachelor's degree in journalism with a concentration in public relations.

Davis  is among a growing number of older students returning to school seeking to get their degrees after having been away, in some cases, for a decade or more.  While the reasons often vary, and might be based on finances, a career, or even a lack of interest or motivation when they were younger, some older undergraduates decide to return to college to finish up what they had started earlier in life.

To better assist older students like Davis, the University of Memphis established an Adult & Commuter Student Services Office.  Joy Stout is the current director.  She said that she sees older students often returning to college for any number of reasons.  For some, it is because they are seeking a change in careers; for others, it is because they want to do something different.  Still others see college as helping them with a promotional opportunity in their current occupation.

The biggest obstacle that Stout sees with older students is their apprehension about re-entering school because of their age. 

"We're here to assist these students... and to make them more comfortable upon their return," Stout said. 

The Adult and Commuter Student Services Office is located in the Involvement Zone at the University Center (room 243).  It provides support, services and programs for the non-traditional student as well as to those who commute, who are transfer students or are either in the military or are veterans.  The office has a commuter lounge, an off-campus housing website (, transportation information, monthly training seminars, seminar podcasts, a monthly e-newsletter, campus & community information & referrals - tutoring, child care, etc. 

They also oversee an Adult Student Association (ASA), organized & run entirely by non-traditional age student volunteers, and a Commuter Student Association (CSA), which represents the interests & needs of U of M students, who do not live on campus.  In the Spring 2011 semester, only 2.51 percent of the students lived within a mile of campus, according to the University of Memphis' Office of Institutional Research (OIR).

Aloe Mulrooney, 42, is another older student who started at the University of Memphis in 1988 (then Memphis State University).  He had completed about two years of college when he had to leave school because of a job.  He was not able to return until the Spring 2012 semester.  Like Davis, he is expecting to graduate in May with a degree in journalism, but with a news/editorial concentration. 

From the perspective of the university, anyone 25 years and older is considered an adult learner or a non-traditional student.  Even though they are technically a minority, and are small in number on the campus of the University of Memphis, it is a segment of the college population that may be larger than many might think. 

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, college enrollment of U.S. students, 25 years and older, was about 7.5 million out of about 19.8 million, or 37 percent,  in 2009.  When you exclude the number of graduates from this total, it may closely coincide with the recent enrollments at the University of Memphis.

From data provided by the Office of Institutional Research (OIR) at the university, from Spring 2009 to the Spring 2013 semester, there was an average of 4,259 students per semester who were 25 years or older out of an average total of 16,667 students overall.   Over the four year period, this averages out to about 25 percent. 

If many see college students as being young and just out of high school, television and movie producers have done little to change this perception, either.  In his blog on "The Chronicle of Higher Education," Don Troop wrote, "Given Hollywood's predilection for youth and beauty, no one should be surprised that movie studios favor scripts that focus on the 'traditional' college student."

In an issue paper presented to the Secretary of Education's Commission of the Future of Higher Education, executive vice president of the higher-education consulting firm Eduventures Inc., Peter J. Stokes, disputes the conventional thinking of who college students actually are.  In "Hidden in Plain Sight:  Adult Learners Forge a New Tradition inHigher Education," Stokes questioned the very definition of "traditional" student.

Stokes wrote that "Although 'traditional' 18-22-year-old full-time undergraduate students are residing on campus account for only 16 percent of higher education enrollments, the attention given to this group of students obscures the fact that the vast majority of college and university students are 'non-traditional' - largely working adults struggling to balance jobs, families, and education."

For students like Davis, this is one of the drawbacks for non-traditional students.

 "It's the stresses of the world, mortgage, utilities, and children's school tuition," Davis said that can make college life difficult.

Along with the misconceptions of who college students actually are, there are also some misperceptions that people might sometimes have of older students as well.  Aside from the generational differences that exist, older students may sometimes be stereotypically seen by others as being technologically-challenged.  While it might be true for some, Davis does not see himself as being one of them.

"I am a director of Information Technology and the youngest director that I know at my company," Davis said.

Other older students might also be seen as possibly being out-of-touch, and Mulrooney admits that he might fit more into that category.

"I sometimes feel old and out of it because I often don't know much of what the younger people are even talking about," Mulrooney said.

From the perspective of the older student, there are advantages and disadvantages for them within the college environment.  Unlike their younger counterparts, the advantages for some older students might include coming back to school with a greater life experience.

"I've got more real world experience that I believe gives me more 'ah-ha' moments.  I've already dealt with the majority of what I am being taught in class and I can see how the lesson applies, and, sometimes, how it doesn't," Davis said.

"One other distinctive advantage for older students is that they usually have a greater maturity level and a little more discipline," Mulrooney said.  "When you give them something to do, they are going to take care of it.  For them, it's no longer if they want to do it, but they know it's something that they have to do."

Stout sees some of the biggest advantages of adult (non-traditional) students as being what they have to offer the younger ones under 25.

 "There's a lot to be learned from older students.  They can be models for advancing into the real world," Stout said.  "They can also provide information and insight... and foster degree completion for the younger students," she added.  The biggest disadvantage that Stout sees for the older student is time. 

"The length of time that it might sometimes take can be an obstacle for them," Stout said. 

She also conceded that not being as technologically savvy can be detrimental for some and it is a skill set that is very much needed in today's society.

In her article, "Explaining the trend of older students returning to college," Melissa Ing identifies the two categories of older students returning to college.  They include those who need to upgrade their education and those who want to pursue a new interest or career path in later life.  Whether they are victims of the recession or corporate downsizing, Ing sees new career opportunities for older students. 

She also indicates that "adult learners are also fuelling a diverse delivery of education, through a combination of traditional and on-line learning."

While younger and older students share the same goal of passing their classes and graduating, there are often distinctive differences between them beyond that.  Davis and Mulrooney see that the more obvious differences are that they often look, act, and dress differently than their younger counterparts. 

"I am typically over-dressed compared to other students, but  I go to work before and after my classes," Davis said.

In her article, "The Advantages of Being an Older Student," Vickey Kalambakal lists a number of assets that older students might not even realize that they have going for them.  These include having more general and cultural knowledge, and a sense of perspective that younger students do not yet have.  She also sees the negative experiences in life as being of benefit too. 

Kalamabakal wrote that "Older students often know what it means to make less than they're worth.  Being laid off, or passed over for promotion, can be tremendously motivating. Sacrificing your needs for children or older parents can also clarify your own goals." 

In addition to this, Kalmabakal believes that the younger students are used to others telling them where to go and what to do, but that the older person is more used to solving their own problems and cutting through the red tape.

On the humorous side of all this are some of the experiences that older students sometimes encounter. 

"Unlike some older students, I've never been mistaken for a professor, but I have had younger students say 'sir,' and when turning around, found they were actually talking to me," Mulrooney said.  "I also once had a professor who would often say that 'most of you aren't old enough to remember this, but Aloe, you would be.'"

Mulrooney offers the following advice for persons returning to school.  "The best advice that I can give them is to try to enjoy the experience.  You get a chance to do things that you couldn't do before and it can be an added benefit to be around the younger generation and to find out what's going on in their world," Mulrooney said.  

In the end, having the interaction between the younger and older students may be a good thing for both groups of students and something that both may benefit from.


  1. Thanks Dustin! Being an older student myself, I had a personal interest in this topic. I also wanted to cover this story because I didn't think it had been done before, (at least as far as the University of Memphis is concerned). It is important, I think, to give a perspective and a voice to those people who are sometimes overlooked.

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