Skip to main content

Forty Five, Grandmother and College Student: Welcome to the New Norm

Kristen has been writing for over 30 years. She graduated from UCF with a B.A. in English-Creative Writing.


It looks to be a typical Wednesday afternoon. I sit in my Editing for Creative Writing course, taking notes on the different job possibilities at publishing houses. At 4:20, we are dismissed and my fellow classmates are talking about their plans to meet up at whatever watering hole is in vogue at that moment, and plans for the weekend. They speak of the various student social events and varsity sports. I am meeting up with my oldest daughter at the cafeteria for some dinner and to work on French homework together.

Yet, I have something else on my mind. A text I received from my youngest daughter during class, “3 cm.” After dinner, the oldest and I alternate between French and checking our cell phones. By the end of the evening, while on my way home, life will change for me. I will be a grandmother.

There was a time when I would have been referred to as a non-traditional student. There were not many when I was in my late teens to early twenties that were pursuing an undergraduate degree at the same time their children were doing the same, or getting married much less having kids of their own. Yet, here I was, at age 45, doing just that.

Just the Stats:

If you do a quick internet search, you will find that the non-traditional student, as defined by the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) falls within 2 or more of these guidelines:

  • Delays enrollment by not entering right after high school
  • Attends part-time for at least part of the academic year
  • Works full-time while enrolled, at least 35 hours/week.
  • Is considered financially independent, either as married or at 24 years of age, for purposes of determining eligibility for financial aid
  • Has dependents other than a spouse
  • Is a single parent
  • Does not have a high school diploma

I fall within three of these. I work a full time job as a Community Association Manger. I qualify as an independent student, and have so for many years now. I even have a daughter who qualifies. And as I have mentioned having daughters, the “has dependents other than a spouse” is a no brainer. I was actually putting them through community college at the same time I was attending. Four if you want to get technical, as I started again at age 42 after originally attend college right out of high school and dropping out. Therefore it indirectly makes this a delayed enrollment.

I am not alone in this endeavor. Currently, according to the Center for Postsecondary and Economic Success, 36% of current enrolled students in colleges and universities are 25 years of age and older, with 25% of overall student falling within the 45-65 year age range. According to the NCES, 20.2 million students are expected to attend colleges and universities in the fall of 2015. That puts the number of middle age students at around 5.1 million.

Then take into consideration the rate of enrollment increases. Between 2000 and 2012, the enrollment of students under age 18-24 and 25 and over both increased by 35%. The NCES goes on to predict that at the current rate of enrollment for both age groups by 2023, the rate of increase for students under age 25 be at 12% percent, contrasted with 20% for students age 25 and over. At an 8% advantage what was once considered the norm for college student, the current traditional student will become the exception.


The Reality of Being a Later in Life Student:

College attendees may be trending older, but the perception that a college student is a young person fresh out of high school, living in a dorm and devoting all their time solely to their studies has not changed. I not only knew others felt this way, I believed it myself. Upon returning to get my Bachelor’s degree, I was prepared to face the 21st century youth culture shock I felt I was heading into.

When I first attempted college back in the late 1980’s, if anyone my age was seen around the campus, they were seen as and a major of the time were staff, faculty or someone’s parent. I was reminded of this when I was purchasing lunch at the college bookstore cafe, and the courteous work-study traditional college student manning the counter asked for my employee discount number. Thought she was very polite and friendly, I must profess to enjoy when I had to inform her I was a student.

I was also prepared for the reality that I would most likely be older than a number of the professors would be charged to educate me. Completing my Bachelors this term, I can say with certainty that I have been the same age or older than a majority of my professors. In four years, I can count the number of who were older on one hand, and have a finger of two to spare. It makes for an interesting dynamic when you have discussions with your professors on an almost equal level. We talk about our adult children. We talk about our “grown-up” responsibilities. With one professor, we talked about being grandparents. Another asked my opinion after class if I felt a certain group of students was being too rambunctious, just to be sure he wasn’t overreacting.

As a middle aged student you have more professional experience that your younger fellow students. In my Editing class, there was a project where we were divided into groups and given a job description. Based on previously written evaluations, we were assigned to pick the best candidate. I was chosen unanimously. When we revealed the group’s selection, the professor said she knew I would be the one they selected, that it was almost a cheat but wanted to show the others what it takes.

The Benefits of Returning Later:

One thing that the 45-65 year old crowd has is time not on consumed on raising kids. It’s even simpler if they are fortunate to have those kids out of the house, either in college or making it on their own. Though I confess to missing my daughters, I have found that all the freed up time has been a blessing, as I can put myself fully into my studies when I am home. In turn, my collegiate activities have helped to ease the transition of not having them around. After twenty-two years of your life having a primary focus, having it disappear can cause one to feel adrift.

You have a different perspective than a younger student. One of my writing professors said she liked that I was older, because she read something different when she got to my assignments. Instead of another short story about the death of grandma as a life changing experience, she got to read about a student who became one.

And all that experience I mentioned above. Twenty plus years in the work force has given me benefits that have worked in my favor this time around. Problem solving, time management, being able to meet deadlines, working with others, preparedness and organization are just some of what an older student brings to the classroom.

I remember my first class back. The night before I worked on putting together my binder. I had paper, dividers, a calendar printout, pockets for assignments and even a cover designating the class. I had purchased my books the week before. I went online and printed the syllabus. I had pens ready in blue and black ink. After introductions, the professor spoke about how she wanted our notebooks, making it an assignment. When I showed her mine, it became the example to which the rest were to follow. Before that class, I was apprehensive about returning. After that, not so much.

If someone had said that when my daughters were in college or married with children of their own I’d be squeezing homework into weekly phone calls offering motherly advice, I would have looked at them as if they were out of their minds. Even my own mother thought I was mad when I announced I was returning, wondering where I was going to fit this in with shuttling the girls to their classes, my job and maintaining the homestead. But I have always said that if something is worth doing, a way will be found. So here I am, middle aged with two adult daughters, a son-in-law and an infant granddaughter. I maintain a household and a full time job. I am also a college senior poised to graduate at the end of the semester with a 3.3 GPA and two honor society invites.

When my partner of twenty four years picks on the handful of grey hairs that have sprung up in the last few years and calls me Grandma to try to get a rise out of me, I just look him in the eyes and say, “I’m not old. I’m a college student.”

© 2018 Kristen Willms

Related Articles