As even a casual visitor to college campuses can confirm, the words student and young are no longer synonymous. Mirroring a national trend, large contingents of older students have started at California colleges and universities or have returned to them after years in the work force. About 53% of all students at California community colleges are 25 years old or older.
The California State University system reports that nearly 36% of its new undergraduate transfer students last year were at least 25 years old, up from 30% a decade before. Those students--most juggling family demands, jobs and classes--are having a profound effect on higher education, even as their education helps transform their own lives and careers. Cal State system Chancellor Barry Munitz, head of the 20-campus, 319,300-student system since 1991, discussed those changes with Times staff writer Larry Gordon.
Question: How much of this enrollment was driven by the economy, by people being laid off?
Answer: There’s no question that as economic trends either tightened or shifted, people needed to come back to school either to change careers or to stay competitive in their current career, or to get some extra skill to move up the ladder. But other things are involved too. A desire to stay intellectually alive. Women whose children are old enough to be in school and now have the privilege of coming back . . . and institutions of higher education have made a dramatically stronger effort to recruit those students.
Q: What type of classes and majors are they mainly interested in?
A: Probably 60% of them are categorized under a broad umbrella of business and technology. Everything from computer training to software development to machinery hardware repair. On the business side, everything from accounting to marketing to statistics, the politics and psychology of management.
Q: Has that affected your demand for basic liberal arts and sciences?
A: Obviously, in terms of that adult population, the demand for arts and sciences is weaker. There are still those who come to do creative writing, to do the basic philosophy course they never had the time to do. But those were higher and stronger 10 to 15 years ago than they are now. My theory in part is that they are much more focused on their selection of courses, much more realistic about what they need and don’t need. And this may not be a good thing because it may mean: “This Greek philosophy course might make me a more thoughtful person. But nope, I’m not going to take that. I’m going to take this engineering or mechanical drawing. It’s part of my major. It will get me in the job market. And some day, I’ll read that other stuff.”
Q: How do those groups affect the traditional image and life of a campus, with activities like football games and social life?
A: They change them profoundly. You see the fraternity, sorority, athletic issues are much less important. All the extracurricular activities are much less important. It’s harder to get people to participate in student government. On campuses like ours, you can have 30,000 students and 1,600 vote in a student election. So 700 or 800 elect the student body president, or 500 pass an initiative that affects the fees of 30,000. So it creates strange things.
Q: Is there any antagonism between the different age groups?
A: Quite the contrary, it’s almost as if the younger students begin to discover either older brothers and sisters or surrogate parents. I walked into a classroom the other day and asked that question. A 19-year-old junior in an advanced statistics class said he was frustrated about why they were bothering to study this. The person next to him was a 31-year-old supervisor in the post office on the night shift, and had told him “You know, I could not do my job or be eligible for promotion were it not for this course. Let me tell you all the reasons why it’s going to be meaningful to you.” So it’s very helpful, almost like having additional counselors.
Q: What about some faculty being younger than some of their students? Is that awkward?
A: Faculty love the returning students. The faculty love them because they know why they are there. They have hard-nosed, practical reality about what’s going on in the outside world and what the link is between study and work.
Q: Do professors have to change their teaching methods?
A: Probably they are kept on their toes more. They have to have a lot more understanding that the people they are dealing with are not adolescents. . . . (The students) may be less likely to do assignments that require big chunks of out of classroom work every day, knowing that they can’t go home and do three hours of reading every night. So it might be geared for more chunks of time on weekends. I think it’s clearly different. I’m not sure it’s less.
Q: I have a friend who went back to school at Antioch University and received some degree credit for her work experience. Why doesn’t Cal State offer that kind of experience credit?
A: No, we do not. It’s very controversial. I’m not sure it’s bad. But it’s very difficult to measure. And it really is open up to abuse.
Q: What about financial aid? Is it much more difficult for returning adults to get financial aid just by the fact of who they are?
A: This is a major national issue. There are some categories of financial aid for which they are not eligible. Some of the federal grants and loans are limited either by age bracket or by the number of years you’ve already been in school. . . . Returning students are much more likely to be steered to loans because they are much more likely to be still working and have saved some money.