T he typical image of new college students is that of recently graduated high school seniors preparing to leave home for the first time and move into the dorm. The energy is palpable, the air filled with excitement about the many new things that will be learned and the unlimited opportunities that await.
However, teenagers are not the only people going to college. Who is showing up on campus today? Older adults.
When people envision older adults taking classes, what comes to mind is the senior center. Interesting classes are offered there, including art, foreign languages and exercise. Such classes are beneficial and expand the social, physical and emotional well-being of the elder student.
These programs are not the only option for seniors who want to quench their thirst for knowledge. Since the late 1970s, people over 60 have participated in the Over 60 Degree Program, where they can apply to college, enroll in classes and earn a bachelor’s or master’s degree at any of the California State University campuses for less than $10 a semester.
According to Los Altos resident Anabel Pelham, Ph.D., professor in the gerontology program at San Francisco State University, a group of older adults, led by the late Adrian Greenberg, visited her SFSU office more than 30 years ago. Their goal was to learn how to earn a degree. Out of this meeting sprung the idea for the Over 60 Degree Program.
“These older adults,” Pelham said, “were desperate to go back to school.”
While this group of seniors came from different backgrounds, the common factor uniting them was their burning desire to obtain an education. The group that met with Pelham that day led full lives and had contributed much to society. Many were veterans who had risked their lives serving the country during World War II, others worked at difficult jobs to support their families, still others gave up their dreams of an education to raise children. Despite the detours, their quest for knowledge never ended. The fact that there were few options for older students made their desire even stronger.
The Over 60 Degree Program (also known as the Over 60 Taxpayer’s Benefit Program) created new educational opportunities for older adults. In all the programs, fees are waived, allowing participating seniors to take classes for as little as $4 per semester.
There are restrictions, however. Participants must complete the same application and meet the same academic requirements as other incoming students. They may not enroll in programs that are impacted, nor do they receive priority. They register last and are able to enroll in classes only if there is space available. While the program allows older adults to return to school, it does not afford them special treatment.
The prime beneficiaries of the program are arguably their classmates. Seniors are excellent role models for their younger peers.
“Older students work hard, earn good grades and get their degrees, all while adding a lot to everyone’s educational experience,” Pelham said. “They bring their experiences and history into the classroom, which benefits everyone, no matter what the academic discipline might be.”
The intergenerational diversity students in the program provide is valuable in the classroom setting and furthers understanding between generations.
The older students contribute greatly outside the classroom as well, volunteering on campus and in the community. Pelham said that many of the older students volunteer in the campus libraries, help in the creative-arts departments or participate in community and campus programs. Given the limited financial resources of the CSU system and many non-profit community organizations, the time donated by program participants is greatly needed and very valued.
After completing their degrees, the graduates are prepared to begin new careers. With degrees in hand, they can support themselves and continue to be productive members of society, who needn’t rely on unemployment benefits or other types of government assistance.
The psychological benefits associated with continuing to work and contributing to society improve the physical health and mental well-being of older adults, which reduces health-care costs.
The best thing about the Over 60 program is the message that it sends to the community: Life begins at 60.