(This is part two of a series that began here.)

For the most part they stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb. Try as they might to blend in with the younger crowd, they simply couldn’t manage to go unnoticed.

And we mocked them behind our lily-white, unblemished hands.

They carried worn satchels crammed with every required and suggested textbook for every class they attended. And they attended all of them. Every day. Even the ones at 8:00 AM on Friday morning. We knew this because we’d hear them in the bathroom, shaving with their obnoxiously loud electric razors, running the showers right up to the brink of the limits of the hot water heaters. If we rolled out of the loft and actually ventured into the john, we’d see them . . . bright-eyed and chipper.

They were morning people.

Instead of spending their evenings hanging out at the campus commons watching MTV and eating generic sausage pizza, talking about everything and nothing at once, they stayed in their room and studied. Listening to country music. Or Neil Diamond. At a reasonable decibel level. They lived on the quiet floor and they expected quiet. And when study time eventually ended they watched Headline News. Or PBS.

What geezers! Party poopers!

At some point toward the end of the week they’d disappear. Hop in their Jeeps and vanish for the weekend. We didn’t care much where they went. Just that they were gone. Leaving us to our Iron Maiden and Motley Crüe and hot dates and late-night Uno parties in front of the elevator. Which they always used instead of the stairs.

They were the SOTAs.

Students Older Than Average.

Nowadays, the correct term is a “non-traditional” student. And I’m one of them.

According to one study, nearly one-third of all undergraduates enrolled in colleges and universities in the United States are over the age of 25. Most of these students attend part-time.


We have lives to live. Bills to pay. Families to care for. And no trust fund to foot the bill for a college education.

As one non-traditional student put it when asked about the “extras” faced by non-traditional students for a study conducted at the University of North Carolina, “In my instance, it’s working through school. I don’t have as much time. A lot of professors just don’t see that. In general most of them are used to kids where their parents are paying their bills and they have the spare time. They can go to study sessions at 3:00 in the afternoon. I have to totally rearrange my schedule to try and be there for this. They don’t seem to accommodate that very much. It’s the little things, where it’s a little harder. You have to really want to go back to school because it seems like if you don’t really want it, you’re fighting against the wind. It’s easy to give up.”

Or consider the case of Doug McCurry, a 49 -year-old mechanical engineering sophomore at LSU. McCurry began classes while working full-time and eventually had a heart attack. His perspective changed dramatically: “Your social life is not as important as your education is now,” he said. “You come back now and want to make the most of it.”

Are there advantages that come with having geezers around the college campus? The UNC study cited above concludes that “[b]ecause of the wider experience they have of life, nontraditional students bring a different perspective to the classroom. They may see class topics and material from unusual angles, and introduce unexpected opinions and insights into class discussion. Nontraditional students often feel excluded or singled out because no one in the classroom seems quite able to explain why they are there, neither students nor the teacher. In each new class, therefore, they must reintroduce and re-explain their position to the class in the hopes of making the other students and the teacher more comfortable with their presence. They seem to agree that once they explain their presence, the other students seem curious and interested in them rather than nervous about their presence . . . The greatest asset nontraditional students bring to the classroom, apart from their life experience, is their willingness to work hard and to “go the extra mile.” Nontraditional students are back in school with clear goals and reasons for being there. They are often unusually active and thoughtful participants in class. They can be a source not only of extra insights and information, but also of enthusiasm for a class, and they ask nothing more than teachers use their particular type of diversity to the class’s advantage.”

And we generally don’t walk that extra mile in flip-flops and pajama bottoms.

Why do I do it?

It’s about my kids. I want them to see that learning is a lifelong experience. And sometimes learning happens best when structured. I have tests to study for. Papers to write. Books to read with more than a skin-deep glance. And, yes, grades matter. When one of my kids brings home an assignment emblazoned with a big, fat, red A, it goes on the wall. Our mural of academic achievement. And nothing makes me more proud than to see a logic test I’ve aced or philosophy paper I’ve nailed hanging next to a crepe paper fish or German exam. We are in this together. And we do our best.

Even when it’s hard . . .

(For helpful information and resources aimed at non-traditional students, visit the Association for Non-Traditional Students in Higher Education at

Part One – What Are You Going To Do With That?

Part Three – Being Kirk

[photo credit]


12 thoughts on “SOTA

  1. Hey! I was one of those older students! When I was in college there weren’t many other older students in my classes with me, so yeah, it was kind of an isolating experience at first.

    I’m very proud of you for going back – it does send an important message to your kids, and it can feel pretty good to be using that gray matter for something other than kissing the boss’ behunkus.

  2. Far be it from me to tell you what your motivation is…But, to hell with it, I’m gonna do it anyway. It’s not for your kids alone that you do it. I think it’s primarily for you. And, because of that, they’ll probably learn a lesson. I think things we do for kids benefit alone are usually the things they see right through .

    PS. I was a philosophy major in college! That’s why I can drive people crazy in several different ways, I think.

  3. Brian –

    Great post! This is why you got 2 stars 🙂

    I was one of those non-traditional students, too, but I went to school online. It was great! I graduated magna cum laude (just one lousy ‘B’ from summa cum laude) with my husband and son in the audience. I was happy to see that I wasn’t the only older student. There were many, many people older than me. The school I attended was University of Maryland University College, in-state for me.

    My husband is also taking classes, and our son is a mechanical engineering/math double-major at the University of Maryland. When I first started college, he was undecided on whether it was for him or not. Now he’s a dedicated student. I know that I made a difference for him, and boy was he ever proud of his mom!

    It is harder for SOTA or non-traditional students, but it’s so much more do-able nowadays, with so many colleges going to online campuses.

    I say – you are NEVER too old.

    But with my acceptance to American University, there are a couple of problems. (a) I’m not physically well most of the time, and there’s a lot of walking involved (and carrying books). I could probably get a handicapped pass, though. (b) it’s a 1 hour to 1.5 hour commute each way. Add that to a full-time job and a home/family/pets to care for. (c) A lot of the classes are held during the day. I haven’t figured out how to do that yet. My employer is flexible, but not that flexible. And who can afford to quit? Not me.

    Anyway, great food for thought, and good research links.

    Peace – D

  4. Kudos for actually appreciating your education and not just going to get your card punched. Card punchers see higher education as a necessary evil to attain to a worthy career. The rest actually want to grow as a person.

  5. Hey Brian,

    I’ve been back once as an older student (35 amongst a sea of 20 year-olds) and I loved it. I can easily imagine myself as a full-time student again. I just love learning and reinventing. I buy lottery tickets now, dreaming of the time I can go back and stay. My to do list includes learning Mandarin, Japanese, and Cantonese. Classics. Philosophy (thanks to you). And maybe Sculpture.

    I’m certainly no expert on academic writing, but you really seem to have a knack for the style. Is there a PhD and a professorship in your future perhaps?


  6. When I was in my third junior year in college I had a marketing class that included a geezer. He had retired and was taking classes just to fill his head with something more than a spreadsheet of recent bowel movements or remembering whether he took his Tuesday’s allotment of old people meds on Tuesday. I’d always hang out with him after class because he had such an unusual take on everything going on in class – which things really had relevance in the outside world, which things were academic masturbation.

    I’d love to do the same thing, at the same time. There’s just no time for me to squeeze in the rigid schedule of classes now. But when my lottery numbers come up, I’m totally going to pull a Thornton Mellon. I wonder if Oingo Boingo will be available when I do.

    BTW, there were a few other “traditional” students that also orbited that geezer after class. I hope you’re finding you have a similar following.

  7. I am glad there are so many non trads now.

    I was a single mom in college – in an all girl catholic college- they lived there, I commuted….

    I was the only non trad. I was like a square peg in a round box….

    but on graduation day; I dressed my son up in cap and gown and he marched up there with me to get that diploma- he earned it!

    YOU GO!

  8. Great post, Brian, and thanks for that link at the end. I’m going to be starting school in the next couple of months and I’m kind of unnerved about how I will find the time, but I WILL find the time.

  9. I’m going back to school in the relatively near future and expect it to feel very different this time around.

    Like you, I want my kids to see that education never ends.

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