What It's Like to Be a Middle-Aged College Student

Forty years after I left school, I'm going back.
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Columbia University/Wikimedia Commons

Tired of academia, eager to begin a life without algebra, and distracted by the unrelenting Santa Barbara sunshine, I decided to take a gap year. Who knew it would turn out to be 40?

My short-lived college experience pretty much resembled that nightmare you still have. You know, the one where you walk into a large hall, are handed a blue book and then realize you forgot to study or attend class? So, in 1968, after completing one year of college, I moved on to a satisfying life of writing jobs and political campaigns, marriage, raising children.

Not having a college degree was by no means a serious issue, especially in Los Angeles where folks just want to know how many miles you ran that morning or if you have any good screenplay ideas. But upon moving to New York in 1983—where inquiring and glittering minds immediately want to know, “where did you go to school”—the diploma-less me began to feel the sting.

I usually answered “University of California” and left it at that. But it continued to gnaw at me and I began to crave closure. The unfilled hole also left a sour feeling of intellectual insecurity regardless of how many times I was reminded that Jobs, Zuckerberg, Gates, and countless artists didn’t complete their four years. Eventually, I couldn’t deny it anymore. I knew I had missed one of life’s great social experiences, not to mention always feeling under-read, under-tested, and under-challenged.

When I applied to Columbia’s General Studies program (for those who did not complete college the first time for various reasons), my friends were astonished. Why now, when I wasn’t looking for a new career? My answer was threefold: My husband and I would soon be entering empty nestdom, so it seemed a good time to fill it; I had always done everything late in life (marriage at 34, first child 39, braces in my 40s); I regretted not having had a real campus experience. Now that I am educationally embedded, folks generally first say, as did writer-publisher-Harvard grad James Atlas, “I wish I could go back, when I know so much more about life. Books grow with us.” Such sentiments are quickly followed by, “But I could never take a test or write a long paper.”

I am clearly not alone in my quest for academic validation: Well over half a million of the students enrolled in degree-granting institutions are over the age of 50. “One advantage about returning to college later in life is that the student will likely have a greater sense of purpose and focus and thus be able to capitalize better on what is offered,” says Margaret Gatz, a psychology professor at University of Southern California. “Another advantage is that the older student brings a lifetime of experiences and knowledge to the new information being presented and thus can have a richer learning experience.”

Gatz points out potential barriers, including competing demands. (Every time I tell my adviser that I can’t imagine how students could be taking four, even five classes at a time, he reminds me they are not also running a household and writing plays. Oh, that.) Another hurdle might be physical stamina. “The older student will be surrounded by college-age youth who have agile memories and who can stay up all night to cram for an exam or finish a paper,” says Gatz. “This just means that the older student must be craftier.”

Fortunately, there is increasing evidence that older students can succeed and that it will even keep our minds sharper. “There is as much variation in an aging brain as there is in a school child’s brain,” says New York psychiatrist Roger Gould. “If you and your brain are healthy, the only limitations to learning new mental skills and information are your motivation and natural intelligence.”

James Fallon, a neuroscientist at University of Irvine, claims “people are at their maximum cognitive abilities are in their 60s. It’s the ideal time to balance their executive functions, which younger students don’t necessarily have yet, with intellectual techniques which are likely still there but haven’t been used for a long time.” Fallon, who is 66, says, “I have never been more creative and productive.”

Fallon’s views are corroborated by the Seattle Longitudinal Study, which tracked the cognitive abilities of thousands of adults over 50 years. The report shows that middle-aged adults performed better on four out of six tests than they did as young adults. Likewise, University of Virginia psychology professor Timothy Salthouse last year completed a comprehensive study entitled Consequences of Age-Related Declines and concluded, “cognitive ability is important in daily life and there is currently little evidence that its importance declines with increasing age. In fact, there are some reasons to expect that the role of cognitive ability in late adulthoods is even more important now because individuals of all ages are being asked to take more responsibility for financial and medical decisions.”

Gatz offers us older students some key tips: Attend lectures; study actively (keep testing yourself along the way); focus on one thing at a time; look for opportunities to discuss the material. And, says Gatz, “Emphasize understanding over memorizing: Older learners have an advantage in recalling the gist of what they have read or been told, so relate what you are learning to what you already know.”

That said, some “craftiness” is called for. Before I went back to school, I didn’t even know what mnemonics meant (let alone how to spell it), but I sure do now. I got through Music and Art Appreciation classes by attaching every composer or artist to a letter in the alphabet, or connecting them to some personal memory. I devise a way of organizing my notes and memorizing what the pages look like, so when handed the dreaded blue exam books, I immediately draw pictures of my studied pages. How much do I retain? Probably about 10 percent. But hey, how much Judaism did you retain after your bar mitzvah?

The knowledge I do retain has served me well, and in unexpected ways. There I was in the Pitti Palace Museum in Florence last summer, explaining the genesis of some obscure paintings I recognized from a class. Even though I only got a C plus (believe me, I was grateful) in my Science of Psychology class, much of the information has informed my non-academic writing ever since. And when I took my son to Normandy last year, it had new meaning due to the course I had just completed on World War Two and Memory.

Of course, there are the social issues, realizing you may feel like your co-students, but you sure don’t look like them anymore. Remember that other nightmare you have: the one where you are the last picked for every team? Welcome to my life. My three partners rolled their eyes when I was assigned to their group for an excursion to Coney Island and subsequent 20-page report. But they quickly warmed to the idea when they learned I had a car and was adept at editing. My friend Robin, who returned to college in her 40s, admitted that almost as gratifying as graduating magna cum laude was when one of her fellow students said, “You’re just like one of us.”  

The regular students may take awhile to warm to us, but the schools themselves are seeing the gains in the returnees: “Such students bring experience and motivation that enriches the whole community,” says Judson Shaver, president of Marymount Manhattan College. “Typically, they set a high bar for their young colleagues. MMC has had many such students, some of whom have gone on to serve as Trustees.”

As for the professors, they tend to have mixed feelings and strict agendas and are sometimes just not that into you. “Older students know what they want, which is good,” says Andre Aciman, author and professor at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York. “But there can be issues. Many grew up in the ‘60s when they learned to talk back and say what they think. There is much more decorum now in classrooms. It can also be a problem when they think they know more than the teacher.”

I am trying my best. I have learned to raise my hand again. I have learned to hold my tongue, even if it means not saying I found a mistake in the syllabus, that my father funded the release of the My Lai massacre report being discussed, or that I dated one of the authors of the Port Huron Statement.

Bottom line? Being back in college is really rigorous and there’s not a day I don’t consider giving up, convinced that I am not now and will never be a critical thinker. But then—it’s fun to hear my husband brag that he’s the only one in his family of four not currently getting a college degree. That student I.D. is saving me a lot of money at the museums. I can opt out of really boring social events because I have to study for my midterms. I am getting the chance to do something over when I am at the right time and place to savor it.

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Michele Willens is a journalist, playwright, and the editor of Face It: What Women Really Feel as Their Looks Change.

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