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Posted at 12:00 PM ET, 10/20/2009

Going back to college at 59: You can't do it "on a shoestring"

By Valerie Strauss

Kay Dawson lives in Englewood, Ohio. She has had numerous jobs, including bookseller, proofreader (for a textbook-preparation company), administrative assistant and circulation manager of a weekly newspaper. Most recently, she taught word processing at an anti-poverty agency and was a substitute teacher for a morning at a public school.

By Kay Dawson
I went back to school at the age of 59--and I’ve learned a lot more than Spanish.

Books are heavier. Combining a caffeinated soft drink and a two-hour class with a 59-year-old bladder is not a great idea. Professors are so young.

But what seems to have changed the most from when I was last in school is that it is no longer possible to go to college on a shoestring.

Here’s how I wound up back in school: I passed the booth for Sinclair Community College in Dayton at a festival just after seeing yet another ad for an office assistant fluent in Spanish. So I picked up some information, and before I could lose my nerve, registered for a course to refresh my ancient high school Spanish.

As in the past, elevators are never conveniently located and are the slowest in the city. But the stairs are a lot steeper, and lugging those books is more difficult.

One notebook, one 2.5-lb. textbook (yes, I weighed it), and one paperback Spanish-English dictionary leave me panting after two flights. Desks are the wrong height for a 5’2" student with trifocals. Being 59 doesn’t bring immunity to that nightmare that you are taking an exam you forgot to study for, although not having to explain your grades to your parents means it recurs less frequently. You are older—and better dressed—than most of your professors.

Since many students at a community college come directly from work, most professors don’t object to coffee or soft drinks in class. Although food in the snack bar still runs heavily to cheeseburgers, pizza, and subs, there are lots of salads and fruit available. There is a Starbucks in the library.

When I was 11, my mother returned to college. A middle-aged, full-time student was so unusual that the college allowed her to eat in the professor’s dining room, my brother and I were permitted to sit in on her classes when we had no school, and some of her classmates addressed her as “ma’am.”

These days, older students don’t merit a second glance, and school policy bars offspring, even if too old for the Education Department’s day care center, from sitting in on class. (This, I think, is a mistake; I was fascinated that any subject could be so interesting that students debated it after class and couldn’t wait to be old enough for college.)
Workbooks, which my elementary classmates and I thought “babyish” and were thrilled to abandon in the fourth grade, are back.

The last third of the Spanish textbook consists of worksheets to accompany the chapters and the language lab exercises. This means the index, glossary, and verb tables are somewhere in the middle of the book; by the time you find them, you’ve forgotten why you wanted them.

With students ranging from the late teens to the early 60s, a class occasionally tumbles into the generation gap.

In a Spanish lesson structured around entertainment, we all understood that the question was about “Planet of the Apes,” but the answers involved two different movie versions—and a few of us hadn’t seen either. Another assignment asked students to write several sentences in Spanish about “The Simpsons”—once I had written that it is a dibujo animado (animated drawing, or cartoon,), I had pretty much exhausted my knowledge of the show!

What seems to have changed the most, however, is the cost of outfitting yourself for college.

My brothers and I went off to college with typewriters from second-hand stores, and classmates earned money typing papers for those who lacked either a typewriter or typing skills.

Today, the college assumes all students not only have computer skills but a plethora of high-tech devices and services. The class schedule and registration procedure is entirely online—even if you’re in the registrar’s office.

In the first class, the professor handed out her e-mail address and the URL where the syllabus could be found--instead of her office phone number and a copy of the syllabus. Unfortunately, the college sites are full of graphics and animations and download very slowly on my dial-up connection. (Even if I could afford a broadband connection, my ISP doesn’t provide it in my area.)

The tuition at Sinclair is the one financial break students get. The tuition this quarter was $45 a credit hour for county residents, $73.50 for residents of other Ohio counties and $145.00 for out of state or international residents. These are all going up next quarter, and will keep climbing because there is talk that that the community college will buy and convert a nearby building to student housing. Somebody has to pay the construction costs.

The major complaint that students have is about textbooks.

The $170 I spent on one textbook would have bought all my texts for the term 40 years ago. Savvy students note the required text in the campus bookstore and then look for a used copy on the Internet, but I hear that some colleges now package their own study guides with the texts so students have to buy the college’s copy.

At least one exercise in each chapter requires accessing the publisher’s textbook Web site. Many of these exercises could just as easily be put on the computer disk also sold—at an increased profit (I used to work for a textbook-preparation company)—with the text.

Again, a dial-up connection won’t download the videos. The audio files are .mp3; I can’t open them, don’t have the skill to know what program I need, and have no access to free technical support.

So once every chapter I head for either the heavily used public library or the equally heavily used computer lab in the college’s suburban learning center (branch campus)--and hope that a computer is available.

What school expenses have any of you or your children incurred that were unexpected or that you found unreasonable?

By Valerie Strauss  | October 20, 2009; 12:00 PM ET
Tags:  Going back to school at 59, Higher Education  
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Like you I returned to college after a 35 year gap and found the textbook sticker shock. Finding used copies online, though, is easier than what we had to go through to chase down someone who knew someone who had taken the class two semesters previous.

I also took a course that was partly online and now I am developing online courses. This has opened up a whole new approach to teaching for me. I realize that the benefits of such an approach to learning are many, but I hope we never lose the shared wisdom that comes with a spontaneous in-class discussion.

Posted by: rabbfamily | October 20, 2009 1:30 PM | Report abuse

I knew there was a reason I stuck to it and finished college four years after graduating high school.

Posted by: charlietuna666 | October 20, 2009 2:47 PM | Report abuse

You can get used editions of many course books for a lot less at Amazon and other online places.

Most tests are online now anyway, which makes taking them more convenient.

Posted by: WillSeattle | October 20, 2009 3:08 PM | Report abuse

Exactly my point--taking tests online is easier only if you have the right connection, which 1)costs more than mine and 2) I can't get in this location anyway.

And finding used textbooks online is not possible in some colleges--others (not Sinclair--yet) have started packaging the professor's own study guide with the text, so students HAVE to buy the one the college bookstore sells. The point is to get the students' money, not help them get an affordable text.

Posted by: opinionatedreader | October 21, 2009 10:07 AM | Report abuse

WillSeattle is making the same assumption the colleges make. Taking tests--or doing anythign--online is easier only if you can afford the right connection; if you can't afford broadband or it isn't available in your area, you sit and read a book while the file opens if you can get it at all.

And finding used textbooks online is not possible in those colleges--not Sinclair (yet) who have started packaging the professor's own study guide with the text just so students HAVE to buy the one the college bookstore sells.

Posted by: opinionatedreader | October 21, 2009 10:12 AM | Report abuse

This was a really enjoyable and thoughtful post. I am an under-30 community college instructor, and I appreciate this bit of insight.

Posted by: ishkabibbleA | October 21, 2009 10:52 AM | Report abuse

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