Heading Back to College

Universities are doing more than ever to attract older students.

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Clarified on 11/13/07: An earlier version of this story implied that a United Technologies Corp. tuition-assistance program is only for older students. It is open to all employees.

In Lexington, Ky., 50-year-old IBM techie Watson Caudill is taking night courses to prepare for a new career as a science teacher. In Providence, R.I., 62-year-old Margaret Williams has just finished her last business class and finally opened her long-dreamed-of fish restaurant. In Alpine, Texas, 59-year-old fitness guru and businessman Mike Flynt is proving he is still tough enough to play college football.

Around the country, baby boomers are streaming back to school. The number of college students ages 40 to 64 has jumped by almost 20 percent to nearly 2 million in the past decade. And those numbers are expected to keep growing as boomers—neither financially nor emotionally prepared for the shuffleboard court—retrain themselves to strengthen their employability and relive their youths.

The growth is remarkable in light of school bureaucracies and government financial aid rules that often effectively discriminate against older students, especially those who work. But as the demographic tide of older students begins to rise, a growing number of colleges, charities, companies, and governments are starting to accommodate—and even encourage—adults who return to the classroom.

For decades, college schedules and financial aid programs focused on the millions of 18-year-olds who graduate from high school each year. Schools scheduled most of their classes during workdays. States created full-tuition scholarships for students with good grades—but limited them to recent high school graduates. And the federal government limited most of its student aid to those who take at least two courses a semester. That's a time and energy commitment that's tough for adults with jobs and families.

But colleges, corporations, and aid programs are starting to adapt to the growing number of students like Caudill, a computer operations specialist, who's planning to retire when he reaches his 30th year at IBM next year.

Caudill, who has one daughter still in college, can't afford to simply retire at age 51. And he always wanted to teach and coach kids. So he seized the opportunity when, in 2005, IBM launched a new corporate benefit that pays older staffers interested in becoming science or math teachers up to $15,000 apiece for tuition and time off for student teaching.

Youthful spirit. Teaching young kids is a way to give back and "keeps you younger," Caudill says. He also likes the idea of another salary, summers off, and the potential to qualify for a second pension so that someday he really can afford to retire.

The program is so successful that California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and several other major employers this summer launched a similar program, called EnCorps, funding the teacher training of up to 2,000 private-sector retirees. IBM also just launched a program to pay for training older workers who want to "retire" into other public-service jobs.

Other employers are focusing more dollars on educating older workers in an effort to keep them from retiring. United Technologies Corp. is paying for all tuition and up to three hours off a week for any accredited college class. What's more, students who get a degree are given a graduation present of $10,000 in UTC stock. The 23,000-plus workers who've taken advantage of the program since its 1996 launch (it’s open to all employees) stick with the company at a 4 percent higher rate than other employees. They get more promotions, too, UTC says.

Things are also getting easier for adults who need help just to get into college, thanks to the persistence and inspiration of students like Williams, a high school dropout who had spent her early 50s caring for her ailing mother. She remembers sitting on the couch a few months after her mother had died and watching Oprah Winfrey interview a 100-year-old man who'd gone back to school. "Well, if he can do it at 100, I can do it at 55," she thought, and called a community agency to enroll in GED classes. Unfortunately, the classes were aimed at young mothers and were full.