Older and wiser

June 09, 2006

As a teenager, Mary Sanford Williams yearned to become a lawyer. But at the time, there was no money for college. Finally, now that she has graduated from Baltimore City Community College - at age 80 - the West Baltimore resident is closer to her goal. BCCC's oldest graduate this year plans to become a legal assistant.

According to The Sun's Sumathi Reddy, Ms. Williams, who had a 3.5 grade-point average, did not attend the graduation ceremony last week because she is in summer school and has started course work at the University of Baltimore on the way to getting her bachelor's degree. By the time she finishes law school, the mother of four and grandmother of seven figures she'll be 85, but that hasn't dampened her enthusiasm for learning, and for realizing her dream.

While students as old as Ms. Williams are rare - constituting well under 1 percent of community college and college graduates - older students in general are increasingly common, posing opportunities and challenges for higher-education institutions.

Recent studies from the American Council on Education, a coordinating body for higher education, show that only one in six undergraduates is a "typical" 18-year-old who lives on campus and receives a bachelor's degree in four years. Students age25 and older account for 39 percent of undergraduates. Like Ms. Williams, 51 percent of older undergraduates attend community colleges, while 29 percent are enrolled in public and private four-year schools, 12 percent are in private for-profit schools and the rest are in other types of higher-ed institutions. Most attend part time.

The vast majority of the estimated 90 million post-high school adults who are in various classes are taking adult basic education, English as a second language, work-related training and personal development courses. Only about 6.5 million are taking courses for credit at colleges, universities and trade schools.

Most of these older students - and particularly those who are considered low-income - need more help balancing work, family, studies and personal needs. While higher-education institutions have accommodated older students through special and accelerated academic programs, by establishing satellite campuses and by being accessible to public transportation, they need to train more specialized faculty members and offer more financial aid and child care.

The benefits of a college education, including increased earning potential, upward mobility and greater knowledge, don't fade with age. And Mary Williams is living proof that it's never too late.

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