Economy drives more students over 60 back to school
Today’s economic conditions are not only affecting current college graduates but also those who left college years ago.
Because of the benefits of higher education, older undergraduates and graduates are coming back to college. In 2010, OU had 21 undergraduate students over the age of 60, according to the 2011 Factbook. In 2002, there were only five.
The number of graduate students over age 60 is increasing as well, with 21 enrolled at OU in 2010, according to the Factbook.
OU dance graduate Marilyn Gaston drives a Toyota Corolla, which is older than the average undergraduate at OU and plans to drive it until the engine falls out, she said. She has danced for over a dozen ballet companies in the U.S., Germany and France for over 15 years. And she was born in 1945, the year World War II ended.
There are two reasons older students like her come back to college, Gaston said.They come back to get necessary credentials they didn’t get earlier or to enrich their lives with knowledge.
The average weekly earnings of employees with master’s degrees is almost $500 more than those with associates degrees, according to a 2012 report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Also, as education levels increase, unemployment levels decrease. The unemployment rate for workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher was 4.1 percent in December 2011, compared to a rate of 13.8 percent for those without a high school diploma, according to a 2012 news release by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“If you plan to make a career in academia, you know you’re going to need those pieces of paper because otherwise you’re going to hit a wall where you’re not going to be paid as much as anybody else,” Gaston said.
Gaston originally received a bachelor’s degree in ballet at Texas Christian University in 1966, she said. She also received a master’s degree in creative writing from Queens University in North Carolina in 2008.
She could barely support herself with her earnings as a part-time dance instructor, Gaston said. She needed a master’s degree to compete in the jobs economy, which she will receive from OU in May for dance.
“I didn’t have any trouble finding work; I had trouble being paid as much as people who were half my age,” Gaston said. “They didn’t have any experience, but they had a degree. Now we’re going to be even.”
Gaston began her performing career as a ballerina after graduating from college by dancing with companies in Fort Worth, Texas, Atlanta, German and France. Because of the high-demand work schedule, she decided to forgo her master’s at the time, she said.
After her professional dancing career, Gaston spent over 20 years in Baltimore, where she taught ballet at high schools, colleges and her own dance studio, she said. Gaston also taught in Texas for over two years and in Florida.
Gaston had to foreclose on her house in Florida and declare bankruptcy before coming to OU in 2009, she said.
“Sometimes you just have to go with what happens,” Gaston said. “What happened was that I got the opportunity here.”
Gaston said she chose OU because the program was willing to recognize she was a professional in her field and give her life credit for some of the courses.
Gaston is required to take all the core classes dance majors take, but she doesn’t have to take all the technique classes, she said.
Though she is older and has worked for years, she still has to worry about rising tuition and fees, she said.
“The student fees, I was stunned,” Gaston said. “I thought, ‘Well, I’m not going to make it.’”
OU does not offer any scholarships based on age because non-traditional students are covered by the same policies and approaches as the rest of the campus, OU spokesman Michael Nash said in an email.
Gaston is here to get her credentials in order to apply for better employment, but she said she also wants to learn something new.
“You should never stop learning,” Gaston said. “You should never sit back and say, ‘I know everything there is to know.’ You don’t.”