Shirley James of Sandy Springs is a criminal justice psychology major at Georgia Perimeter College in Dunwoody and has her sights set on a career as a substance abuse counselor. She is on track to receive her associate degree in December 2012, then plans to enroll at Kennesaw State University to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
Sounds like many a young, eager college student looking forward to a successful career. James is, indeed, enthusiastic, but she’s not a typical co-ed. She is however, part of a trend. Now 49, she enrolled at GPC in 2009 after being laid off as an assistant in a substance abuse program. She didn’t have a college degree, although she had a certificate in substance abuse training and 20 years experience working in the mental health field.
At the time James was laid off, a co-worker encouraged her to get a degree if she wanted to move ahead in her career.
“I thought it was my calling and I needed to get credentials,” said James. “I wanted to stay in the health field. My co-worker suggested I get a degree. It turned out to be the best thing. Since I wasn’t working, I started school.”
Nearly 388,000 students age 50 and older were enrolled in community colleges in 2009, the latest years for which statistics are available, according to the Washington-based American Association of Community Colleges. Those older students accounted for 5 percent of the total community college enrollment for that year.
“The coverage of these data is the number of enrollments of students 50 and over in credit courses only,” said Mary Sue Vickers, the director of AACC’s Plus 50 Initiative. She pointed out that “many plus 50 students, particularly those needing to return to work as fast as possible, are enrolling in non-credit certificate programs which are shorter in duration and are delivered in fast track formats.”
GPC has “always served adult learners” or other non-traditional students, said Lisa Fowler, the assistant vice president of enrollment management and student success. She said in the past, most of the non-traditional students enrolled in classes for personal edification, but that has changed in recent years. “A lot of people are coming back to re-tool. Students come to maintain a job or to get a degree to find a new job,” she said.
While the exact number of age 50-plus students was not available, Fowler said, “In the University System of Georgia Fall enrollment report, Georgia Perimeter College had the largest number of non-traditional students in the system.”
Fowler added, “[GPC is] gearing up to better serve older learners [by offering] extra support to attract students and compete with other schools.” She said the Second Wind student organization with a faculty advisor gives older students a forum to support and encourage each other.
James also has found encouragement not just from her own adult children and family, but also from younger GPC students.
At first, said James, “I thought, how am I going to function with all these kids?” She discovered they were good resources. “They know a lot, know the latest of what’s going on, especially with technology,” James said. “They are helpful [and now I’m] not as fearful about asking for help. We’re both at the same place. They’re young and just starting out. I’m older and just starting out. Respect goes both ways.”
Other colleges in close proximity to Dunwoody also enroll non-traditional students. At Oglethorpe University in Brookhaven, a few 50-plus students are enrolled in daytime undergraduate and master’s degree programs, and about one-quarter of the students enrolled in Oglethorpe’s evening degree program for working adults are 50-plus. An admission counselor acknowledges the trend of older people returning to school.
Mercer University, whose main campus is in Macon, has a campus near I-85 and Shallowford Road that focuses on graduate and professional studies leading to degrees in six fields. According to a spokesperson, there has been a 105.5 percent increase in the number of students age 50-plus since spring 2006.
For information about Georgia Perimeter College programs for older students, visit gpc.edu or call the admissions office at 404-631-6585.