LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Mona Cohn doesn't have time for a mid-life crisis -- she's too busy running for homecoming queen at the University of Louisville.
At 48, this energetic woman with the perfect 4.0 grade point average set her sights on the crown more than a year ago. And why not? she says. So what if the other candidates are younger than her son Jeffrey, a 28-year-old businessman from Atlanta?
"I want people to know life doesn't end at 40," says Ms. Cohn, a former Greyhound bus station manager and dress store owner now in her third year at the university. "There's still excitement. I want the non-traditional students to know it's their school, too."
Her poise, smarts, school spirit and ambition (she wants to be a criminal defense lawyer) persuaded a faculty and alumni panel to include her among the 10 finalists vying for the 1994 homecoming court.
And, from the attention she's getting on campus, it appears she might just get a chance to reign.
Ms. Cohn, a criminal justice major, may be the oldest student ever to seek the crown in the University of Louisville's 198-year-old history. But she represents an ever-growing constituency on college campuses: the 25-and-over set, the housewives and unemployed steel workers, laid-off corporate executives and early retirees who are revitalizing some schools and changing the missions of others.
Forty percent of college students are 25 and older, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Between 1989 and 1999, the center projects, the number of older students will increase by 17 percent, compared with about 10 percent for their younger counterparts.
The University of Louisville, a sprawling, tree-studded urban campus near Churchill Downs, site of the Kentucky Derby, reflects the trend. Of 21,000 students, 61 percent are over age 22, and the average age of a student is 27, according to school officials.
"We're sort of invisible," Ms. Cohn says of non-traditional students like herself.
She hoped to change that image by running for homecoming queen, an honor traditionally bestowed on a spirited sorority sister. Louisville has 25 sororities and fraternities, and their members are well represented among the candidates for homecoming queen and king.
Ms. Cohn's candidacy also has sparked debate about a tradition often labeled a beauty contest.
"Mona Cohn has broken the mold of one of America's icons, and she has done us all a favor . . ." an editorial in the school newspaper said. "The glass ceiling of homecoming tradition has been shattered."
And she has done it with style. Since homecoming court candidates are prohibited from putting up campaign posters with their names or photographs, Ms. Cohn's supporters designed a flier featuring a picture of DaVinci's Mona Lisa with the words: "VOTE You know who!!"
It has not hurt her cause with those who think of it as a beauty contest that Ms. Cohn is a bouncy brunette with smoky blue eyes and an hourglass figure.
Across campus, fellow students stop to tell her she has their vote.
"I'm so happy for you," gushed Kristin Morris, the 22-year-old 1993 homecoming queen, who was in a Spanish class with Ms. Cohn. "I hope I get to crown you."
"Mona exemplifies the non-traditional student and we're behind her 110 percent," said Philip T. Dickerson, a 40-year-old art major who heads the Adult/Evening Student Association/
Even some of her competitors have wished her well.
"I'm rooting for her," said Renita Edwards, a 22-year-old African-American student and political science major.
A self-described "study geek," Ms. Cohn enrolled in the university three years ago after returning to Louisville from Florida, where she managed 200 Greyhound employees in Tampa and later ran a dress shop in Daytona Beach. Married at 17 and divorced 14 years later, she had never been to college. But her mother had always told her: "Anything you ever learned will never hurt you."
Three scholarships and a room at her sister and brother-in-law's home enabled her to attend school full-time. She is an honor society member, loves to dance but finds little time for it or dating: "I guess my priorities have changed."
She describes her son as a cross between John F. Kennedy Jr. and Richard Gere, with a sense of humor like Steve Martin's and the smarts of a Harvard Business School graduate. And she plans on introducing him to her younger classmates: He will be her escort at the homecoming activities.
When a bad hip kept her from trying out for the cheerleading squad, she decided to make a run for homecoming queen. If she wins, she plans to use the title to help victims of domestic violence.
"It's not a contest about beauty. It's about school spirit. The beauty is from within," said Ms. Cohn.
The students at the University of Louisville ultimately will decide if Ms. Cohn takes a seat in the homecoming court. Voting began yesterday, and the results will be announced tonight at a ceremony aboard the Belle of Louisville, a restored paddleboat on the Ohio River. The king and queen won't be named until Saturday's football game, when Louisville's Cardinals face North Carolina State.
One of the students, after leaving her class on Women in American Culture, stood in line to cast her ballot for homecoming queen. She voted only for Mona Cohn.
"First of all, I think it's wonderful she didn't let age stand in her way," said Ray Eva Lipetz.
Ms. Lipetz is 73 years old.