by Evan Frank
College is sometimes said to be the best time in a young person’s life. What isn’t said is college can be the best time in any person’s life, regardless of age.
Something that has become more prevalent on campuses is the nontraditional student. According to America.gov, in 2003 around 6.1 million nontraditional students were enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities.
According to the registrar’s office at the University of Utah, the number of nontraditional students over the age of 60 has risen over the past four years.
In 2004, a total of 202 students who were 61 years or older attended the university. This includes both undergraduate and graduate students. Since then, the number has increased to 275. The number of graduate students has remained in the teens from 2004 to 2008.
Life takes people in many directions. People may have children at a young age or decide there isn’t enough time for school at that point in their lives.
Whatever the reason, things tend to get in the way. The good news is that universities don’t have an age limit for learning and growing.
Wendy Thomas, an instructor at the University of Utah, teaches a class that examines lifelong learning for older adults from a global perspective.
“In this course we explore the value of lifelong learning through economic and social lenses, and compare lifelong learning as it currently exists in the United States with models from other countries,” Thomas said.
“This class is for college students young or old,” Thomas said. “The intention is not to help older adults adjust to college, but to teach students about the learning opportunities available to older adults around the globe.”
Scott Wright, director of the Gerontology Interdisciplinary Program at the University of Utah, believes older students are returning to rebuild their skills and knowledge. Another reason is to stay mentally active.
Staying mentally active is important for adults. If this is not achieved, people may mentally decline, which is a result of altered connections among brain cells, Wright said.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, the organization was founded in 1980. It focuses on providing care and support and conducting research on the disease. The organization states low levels of education have been found to be related to a higher risk of Alzheimer’s later in life.
Thomas, who is also the director at a senior center, says she encourages older adults to continue learning, be active and to be social.
“So many older adults in our country are lonely and isolated, and I’ve seen great outcomes from attendance at senior centers,” Thomas said. “Providing learning opportunities for older adults is one way for them to continue being active.”
While in class, Thomas feels that it is best for her students to interact with each other. Group discussions and group activities are also encouraged.
“In the research that I have done, there are different techniques for students that are older and things that you should consider,” Thomas said. “Older students typically enjoy interaction, especially question-and-answer sessions and discussion.”
Thomas added that older students appreciate instructors who are organized and passionate about their subject.
For most younger students, the purpose of going to college is to obtain a diploma. Older adults may not have the same goals.
“For most older adults the motivation to learn is for personal growth, knowledge enhancement and socialization, not a degree,” Thomas said.
The University of Utah Alumni Association has a scholarship for nontraditional undergraduate students. Students who have been out of school for at least three consecutive years are eligible for the $2,000 scholarship.
“Learning opportunities can be found in everything,” Thomas said. “Informal opportunities are everywhere, learning doesn’t always have to be in a formal setting.”
For example, Thomas said going to a doctor can morph into a formal setting.
“You or your loved one are diagnosed with an illness and after learning of it, you set out to learn more about the illness and you talk to others,” Thomas said.
Joining a support group or taking a class on how to manage the illness are just two examples Thomas mentioned.
College is just one option for older adults to help keep the mind active.