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.
But Williams kept calling back and finally finished her GED. She moved on to community college to study restaurant management and opened her restaurant in September. Now, at 62, not only is she mentoring other adult students but she's contemplating signing up for an accounting class so that she'll be sure to understand her costs and profits. "I don't want to sit around and wait to go. I want to make money, and I want to do what I enjoy doing. I enjoy cooking," she says. "And I love fish."
Brenda Dann-Messier, president of Dorcas Place, the Providence, R.I., agency that helped Williams get her GED, associate's degree, and business loans, says that while her agency still has waiting lists of older adults wanting more education, its services are improving. A decade ago, Dorcas Place offered classes during the workday only and focused on young welfare moms. Now, Dorcas Place is beefing up its evening classes. And, thanks to rising corporate donations, it is expanding services for older workers. "It is beginning to change," she says.
Gridiron hero. But even without help, thousands of boomers say it is worth plenty of mental, physical, and financial sacrifice to return to school. Perhaps no boomer has worked harder than Flynt, a former athletic coach and inventor of an exercise machine who re-enrolled at his alma mater, Sul Ross State University, so he could try to make it back onto the football team he'd gotten kicked off of in the 1970s.
Pursuing that dream has hurt everything from his bank account to his hamstrings. "I've put everything on hold in my life to do this, much to the chagrin of my bill collectors," he says. "When you're 19 and your ligaments are a little sore, in a couple days you're healed. When you're 59, in a couple days you're still sore."
But his age also has its advantages at school. Now that he does homework assignments on time and doesn't spend all night partying, "I'm a better student than I was. I'm making all A's."
And he's succeeding on the field as well. In triple overtime, in an October 13 game against Texas Lutheran, the coach sent Flynt in as a blocking back for a game-winning field goal attempt. "I blocked my man. I looked over my shoulder," and the sound of the crowd dimmed as the ball flew through the uprights. "It was beyond amazing."
Such victories, and his courses on business and health, will help him for decades to come, since he has no plans to retire. His 82-year-old mother, Flynt notes, is managing a Wal-Mart. He and his fellow baby boomers "are going to go to the grave kicking and screaming." And, apparently, studying.