“Let’s Waste College on the Old”: Adult Students Face Limited Choices

I often think back upon my undergraduate education with a combination of fondness, appreciation and regret. Like many, I wish I could go back and be just a little more invested in my studies, participate more in class discussions, forge closer connections with professors, and take the time to delve into difficult readings and subjects. I’m not alone in these wishes – many friends I’ve spoken with feel the same.

It’s not that I didn’t take my college education seriously, and I was certainly more of a bookworm than a party girl. But the issue was less my commitment to and interest in my studies than my social and intellectual immaturity: at age 19, for example, I was prioritizing new friends and experiences over shutting myself away with, say, my Modern Philosophy textbook, and I felt easily overwhelmed by my workload. Of course, I did learn an incredible amount in college. But I can’t help but think of how much more I would get out of it now that I’m in my thirties, with all the confidence, life experience, patience and prioritizing skill that brings.

Of course, this is one upside to being an adult student – one who takes time off after high school or returns to studies later in life. Adult learners have the maturity and self-knowledge to take better control of their education, and they bring more life experience to the classroom. But as Paul Glastris explains in his recent New York Times piece, “Let’s Waste College on the Old,” adult students don’t always have as much choice as their teenage counterparts. While almost 30% of college students are adults 25 years or older, this group is seriously underrepresented at our country’s most elite and highly selective institutions. He writes,

Elite universities pride themselves on creating diverse learning environments, but by ignoring adult students, they’re missing out on a tremendous opportunity to bring different perspectives into the classroom. Schools like Princeton and the University of Chicago train a disproportionate share of future leaders in government and business. Shouldn’t those groups include students who have, say, worked as a nurse in an I.C.U., or supervised a factory floor, or trained combat troops as a noncommissioned officer? And shouldn’t the 18-year-old future leaders of America interact with and learn from people with those experiences?

Glastris hypothesizes that this discrepancy may in part be due to the challenge of adapting to serve adult students – those with more complicated schedules and needs than your average 18-year-old. But a number of schools, he reports, are stepping up to the plate, resulting in more diverse student bodies and richer learning environments. To read more, check out the full article in the Times.

Are you a proF reader who pursued undergraduate study as an adult student? We’d love to hear your story! Email us at submissions@profmagazine.com if you’d like to blog about your experience.