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Always a Ripe Time for Learning

It took only a few days and a resolve to tackle the internet for Marnie Sands to rejoin the college set. Taking a quick tutorial from her grandson, Jonas, Sands learned how to navigate the Blackboard system of her university, set up her student account, and begin working through the extensive reading list of materials for her art history class. Sands, 71, is among a growing number of seniors and elders who have returned to the classroom to prove they are still ripe for learning.

It would surprise most readers that the majority of students seeking degrees in America are “adult learners,” over the age of 50. In fact, a 2018 national survey from Champlain College Online found that 60 percent of U.S. adults age 23 to 55 without a bachelor’s degree have considered returning to school.

“Years ago, as a woman, you did not attempt to juggle house and outside life, so after I got married, my husband and our children became my focus,” said Sands, who completed freshman year at Bennett College before marriage. “My husband worked full-time and attended college at night, which worked for us, but I always regretted not finishing my art degree.”

Now, with grandchildren entering college, Sands said her husband persuaded her to go back and finish what she started. “I was worried about leaving him alone — we have such a routine with our walks and daily activities, but he joked that I was getting under his feet and should take a few courses to keep my mind sharp,” Sands said. “I wasn’t going to do it but found this sneaky man had gone behind my back and enrolled me in school! Often it became a challenge to show him that I could do it. I cannot tell you how excited I am. I feel like a part of me just woke up.”

Manuel Hernandes, a recruitment and retention specialist said older adults tend to make the best students in many cases simply because they’ve learned how to be patient with themselves and really experience the process of learning.

“Learning is a lifelong process and what I see in many of the senior students that come through my doors is a willingness to try. They are not concerned with getting things incorrect — they know there are times when they will not understand, or need to problem-solve, and so their whole attitude is, ‘I want to try,'” Hernandes said. “They also tend to inspire the teens and young adults in the classroom, because they see how much dignity there is in advocating for their own advancement — even when others believe you may be too ‘ ll in the blank’ to be there.”

Lifelong Learning and audit systems offered by many universities allow senior citizens to take courses for free — some for credit, eliminating the burden of tuition. Additionally, many states require state-funded institutions to provide low-income senior citizens with free tuition. For example, e Senior Citizens Higher Education Act of 1974 permits Virginia residents age 60 or older with an annual income of less than $23,850 to take college courses for credit without paying for tuition.

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