Explaining the Trend of Older Students Returning to College

As a community college faculty member, I too have noticed an increase in the number of “nontraditional students” that are returning to college or deciding to attend college for the first time. These students are a welcomed into the classroom. As an instructor, I know that there are some very endearing characteristics that this group of students will bring to the learning environment.

First and foremost, they value the education they are getting and try to get the most out of it. They are the students who are early to class, have read the required chapters, are prepared for exams and ask interesting and thought provoking questions. They understand the value of the education, because they know that without it, good jobs are harder to come by and the monetary rewards are more difficult to achieve.

Unlike traditional students, who feel that they have all the time in the world, older students realize that time truly does fly by and they don’t have time to waste. They want to complete their education and they want to do it right. For most nontraditionals, in addition to coming to college, most work at least part-time, if not full-time and are also balancing family obligations. Time for these students is a valuable commodity.

In the classroom, younger students will tend to gravitate to the nontraditional students. They know that these are the students who are the strongest academically and often have the most to offer based on their life experiences. Traditional students will listen and learn from these “adults” because what they have to say seems to truly mean something.

I think the trend is a delayed reaction from a society that is so focused on immediate gratification. Many students graduating from high school are so excited to be “grown up”, that they can’t wait to get their $15.00 per hour job and do all the things they felt they couldn’t do when they were burdened by just “going to school”. Young people do not realize that the sacrifice of a few years of education will be a true investment in their long term goals. Once they are married, with a family and stuck in a pay structure that only allows them to survive, the value of the education becomes apparent. Many are willing to make the sacrifice at this time in their lives because they are older and wiser. I guess it is true what they say, that youth is truly wasted on the young.