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My dad, the college kid: A lineage of learners

In my family, the apple doesn’t fall far from the teacher’s desk. When I entered college as an English major 4 years ago, my dad followed; he’s now a grad student at Wright State, and also hopes to teach English lit for a living. We’re 28 years apart, but my dad and I have the exact same career goals, not to mention homework, textbooks, and debts. I can’t get by on youth alone; Dad could be my classmate, coworker, or boss someday.

My dad joined the Air Force while I was still in diapers. Like many servicemen, he enlisted to save money for college and support his family. He wasn’t planning on making a 5, 10, or even 20-year commitment. The military was never a good fit for Dad, and he usually spent his free time plotting his way out: writing plays and mailing them to every lit magazine in the state. Dad easily could’ve used his Air Force connections to land a civil service job, but after 20 years of jobs, he was ready for a career. He had a lifetime of experience with literature; now he needed credit to back it up.

When Dad retired from the Air Force and reentered college, I was more than a little confused. I’d started an exciting new chapter of my life, and I hoped my parents could share a little insight; I wanted a counselor, not a classmate. Dad couldn’t offer much help during my college years, either; he was struggling with the same student debts as me (debts which I kind of hoped he might help with). Mom was even less enthused. One English major in the family was bad enough; now her ex-husband wanted to be a well-read future charity case.

The situation may seem strange, but it’s becoming more and more common. In fact, a quick Google search will turn up dozens of articles on middle-aged, non-traditional students (one of my personal favorites was a blog post titled “Middle-Aged College Students, Or, a New Way to Embarrass Your Kids.”)  All jokes aside, they’re one of the best, brightest, and fastest-growing groups in the college community. The National Center for Education Statistics counted 857 undergrads over 40 in 2000; by 2010, that number rose to 1.3 million.

Older students take major risks. They have fewer sources of financial aid, and their age might be a liability once they’ve entered the job market. On the other hand, college training is now expected in nearly every field. A report from Georgetown University shows that college grads will also earn at least $2.27 million more during their lifetime.

Of course, you can’t put a price on personal satisfaction. Older students do what they love, no matter what the cost is. Like dad, some of them dreamed of being poets, playwrights, and amateur historians, but put those dreams on hold to raise a family or look for more dependable work. For other students, a college degree is a reward in itself. Higher education was too expensive and intimidating the first time; now they’re joining their children and grandchildren at the graduation ceremony.

Older students need dreams, schemes, and a fair amount of money to follow their ambitions. But it’s never too late to start a career, especially if you’re as resourceful as them. Dad’s student years have been such a smashing success; in fact, he’s already two years ahead of me. At this rate, he’s more likely to be my teacher than my classmate: an even scarier thought. Older college students are some of the smartest and hardest-working, so look out: your mom, dad, or grandma could be next.

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