Thinking About Aged-Based Diversity
Senior citizens can bring a wealth of life experience to campus
By Eugene Arden

From the April 2001 AAHE Bulletin


As life expectancy extends, many retirees face a decade or more of post-career time in which to seek self-enrichment and the opportunity to follow their own intellectual interests. In a recent survey of Americans 55 and older conducted by the American Association of Retired Persons, 10 percent of all respondents (and 13 percent of respondents with some college or a college degree) said that when they want to learn, they take a college course.

"Adult education" programs for retirees and senior citizens have existed in this country for a long time, albeit in a very limited nature. The curriculum has been specifically designed for the older students, and frequently the teachers themselves were retired college professors, many of whom also took courses in the seniors-only programs to gain intellectual stimulation outside of their own area of expertise.

What has been available in more recent times, however, differs strikingly from the old adult education courses. It is now becoming more common to integrate the older students into the regular campus programs.

I first began exploring these issues in the mid-1980s at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, where I was dean and vice-chancellor for two decades. I started to wonder why the seniors-only programs were not structured for the mutual benefit of older and traditional students. When older students are segregated into separate courses taught by retired professors, the younger students are not exposed to the rich life experience the seniors have to offer.

To counter this, we initiated a program that required older students to enroll in regular courses already in the curriculum, given by regular faculty members, for regular college credit, and taken with the regular student body.

Obstacles to Integration
This departure from all other "senior programs" started with no fanfare and many doubts about its chances of success. Would older students want to sit in class with 18- to 22-year-olds? Would faculty members feel comfortable teaching students who were old enough to be their parents? Were we right in admitting students who were just following a hobby? Would retirees be willing to pay tuition rates significantly higher than the negligible amounts charged in traditional "adult education" programs?

We started with just six retirees, who were advised and guided not only by me but also by my executive assistant, an energetic and talented woman who took on this extra task as a life mission. The students were not too subtly steered to our best faculty members — "best" in terms of their lively presentation of material and warmth and personality. By granting the retirees partial scholarships we were able to lower the remaining tuition to a competitive amount.

Mainly through word-of-mouth, the program grew exponentially so that within a few years we had to limit the number of new students. In order to lessen the enrollment tensions, we registered the retirees last among all students, so that they actually filled empty seats in courses not yet closed.

While we continued to give them ample guidance, they soon developed a remarkable network of information among themselves about various courses and professors: "Stay away from Dr. X, but try to get into Dr. Y’s course no matter what time it is given," they would advise each other, for example.

Compromises were made; many courses were taken by the retirees for college credit, but some for audit credit only. We actually had a modest number of students who earned a bachelor’s degree, though they tended to be retirees who had earned college credits 30 or 40 years ago — and yes, in most instances we granted transfer credit.

Still, not all faculty members approved, or sometimes did so only grudgingly. "Just don’t turn the campus into an old-age home," I was infelicitously told. Other faculty members, however, became champions of the program and recounted experiences about "the best class I ever taught."

Life Experience in the Classroom
One colleague, for example, talked about an experience in his 20th century American history course when a dispute broke out among the students about the government’s responsibility to the unemployed. "Listen, sonny," a retiree finally said in exasperation, "you want to know about bread lines in the 1930s? Well, you weren’t born yet, but I was there, and I’ll tell you what bread lines meant to hungry people."

As the retiree went on to recall the anguish of not being able to feed his family, it was a defining moment in that young student’s ability to understand the Great Depression.

The program was a boon for the older students, but it seems to me the real winners were the younger students. Diversity takes many forms, and a very important one concerns differences in age — and the differences in experience and aspirations that go along with age. Life on that campus in Michigan was enriched, as I see it, by the classroom mixture of young students and old — one large group thinking of the long future ahead, and a smaller group bringing to the classroom its rich and varied past.

Paraphrasing Irish playwright Sean O’Casey, retirees may have their futures all behind them, but they can still make whatever remains of their lives a vibrant and useful happening. And in so doing, they also enriched the educational experience of the younger students — and some faculty members as well.

Eugene Arden is provost-vice chancellor emeritus at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. He is now retired and living in Florida.

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