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Articles / Applying to College / Support for Older Student

June 20, 2007

Support for Older Student

Question: My four sons are all attending college. I have decided to finish my undergrad education after 30 years. Presently I am a junior at the local branch of my state university and plan to transfer to the flagship campus in 2007. I have been nominated for the Truman Scholarship. I am aware that, as an older student with four kids in college, I might be setting myself up for failure. Financially it is difficult to justify my educational goals. I have roughly 40 hours to go before I graduate. How do I pull all of this together?

I'm not sure if you're looking for specific suggestions on how to proceed with your education or just for moral support. If it's the latter, you've definitely come to the right place. We at College Confidential feel that, as difficult as the road may sometimes seem, pursuing a college dream at ANY age is worthwhile. Even though it may seem a bit nuts to you right now--with four children still in college themselves--chances are, there will ALWAYS be SOMETHING going on in your life that may make you feel as if the timing isn't quite right.


One of my all-time favorite "Dear Abby" columns was published quite a while ago. A woman wrote to "Abby" and said something like this:

"I've always wanted to be a doctor, but I'm 45 years old now and it will take about ten years for me to complete college and get my medical degree. By then I'll be 55. What should I do?"

And Abby responded, "In 10 years you'll still be 55, so you might as well be a 55-year-old doctor!"

I'm paraphrasing shamelessly here, but you get the idea. Take the risk. If you find that you've bitten off too much, slow down. The Truman Scholarship would certainly provide a great incentive to reach your goals, but there are many paths that can lead you there as well.

Smith College, where I used to work, has an excellent program for non-traditional students, The Ada Comstock Scholars Program. These are all women--from age 24 up to more than 80 (!)--who began college late in life or who began it at a more typical time but never finished. The program provides terrific support for these "Adas," as they're nicknamed. When I was at Smith, I observed that some Adas wanted to rush toward their degree as fast as possible while others took full advantage of the college's flexible policies that allowed them to take far lighter course loads than the traditional-aged students, if they wished.

What I also noticed is that some Adas arrived on campus with very clear-cut plans but found that, when reality hit them between the eyes, they had to adjust those plans. Sometimes they found it difficult to abandon their preconceived "timetables" and/or academic goals, but one of the pluses of the program was that the advisors helped the students to realize that each must move at her own pace---one that took a range of factors (finances, family demands, etc.) into consideration.

Many universities have a center for non-traditional students. I suggest that you take full advantage of these services. Get to know other older students, especially those who are juggling some of the same demands that you are. You can provide a lot of support for one another.

Finally, keep in mind that older students tend to be academic perfectionists. You need to figure out what you have to do--and what you don't--to get the grades you want, but have realistic expectations. Don't be too hard on yourself.

It sounds like you're really on a roll, so I urge you to keep rolling and wish you all the best as you proceed.

Written by

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone knows the competitive and often convoluted college admission process inside out: From the first time the topic of college comes up at the dinner table until the last duffel bag is unloaded on a dorm room floor. She is the co-author of Panicked Parents' Guide to College Admissions; The Transfer Student's Guide to Changing Colleges and The International Student's Guide to Going to College in America. Sally has appeared on NBC's Today program and has been quoted in countless publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Weekend, USA Today, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, People and Seventeen. Sally has viewed the admissions world from many angles: As a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years, an independent college counselor serving students from a wide range of backgrounds and the author of College Confidential's "Ask the Dean" column. She also taught language arts, social studies, study skills and test preparation in 10 schools, including American international schools in London, Paris, Geneva, Athens and Tel Aviv. As senior advisor to College Confidential since 2002, Sally has helped hundreds of students and parents navigate the college admissions maze. In 2008, she co-founded College Karma, a private college consulting firm, with her College Confidential colleague Dave Berry, and she continues to serve as a College Confidential advisor. Sally and her husband, Chris Petrides, became first-time parents in 1997 at the ripe-old age of 45. So Sally was nearly an official senior citizen when her son Jack began the college selection process, and when she was finally able to practice what she had preached for more than three decades.

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