Older students attending college this fall may feel miscast and out of place, but enrollment figures show they make up about half of some area campuses.
"We are not talking about a few oddballs," says Dr. E. Lakin Phillips, professor of psychology and director of the counseling center at George Washington University. "Students over the 17- to 22-year-old range make up about half of our total enrollment."
While older students may not be a minority in urban colleges with large commuter populations, many still face a crisis in confidence during their first weeks in school.
"They are competing with younger kids who have had more recent schooling and who know more about taking lecture notes and passing exams," says Phillips. "So they wonder if they have the wherewithal to do the work."
This self-doubt is particularly acute for the older student who has not only been out of school but also out of the work force.
Typically 35, female and the parent of two children, the "reentry student" doesn't believe she is a "bona-fide student," according to Charlotte Stannard, coordinator of reentry student programs at George Mason University, where the mean student age is 27.
"She worries that she is taking a younger student's place in the classroom, and she imagines the other students are wondering what she is doing there. She won't go near the student cafeteria, and she is hesitant to take advantage of student services such as career testing and health services."
In contrast, older working students returning to school to upgrade their skills or to change careers are more skillful than younger students, says Phillips, in "solving problems and in finding the right people to talk to.
"Older students, in general, may have fewer emotional and social problems than younger students, because they are established in their outside lives."
It is this "established" state, however, which has older students juggling multiple roles: Should they spend an afternoon watching a son's soccer game, studying, catching up on a home or office project, studying, or taking a family trip to the Smithsonian?
Stannard and Phillips recommend workshops in time-management and in study skills to help older students their myriad responsibilities and learn how to work the "school system."
Networking, such as that provided by a drop-in center -- a trailer -- at George Mason University can also give older students their own inside track on the school, as well as peer counseling and workshops.
Once older students get over their initial sense of isolation and experience a few A's and B's, "their self-confidence really blossoms," says Stannard.
"In many ways they are like the GIs returning to school after World War II," says Phillips. "They are more serious, and they have more clear-cut goals. They don't want to fool around and waste time, and they may feel sort of impatient with younger kids.
"Generally, instructors feel older students are easier to work with, because they have more purpose, and they are not just after grades or favors."
"Many instructors appreciate their interest they are more likely to ask questions and sit in the front of the class and their experience," agrees Stannard. "But instructors can also feel threatened, especially when they are younger than their students."
The same dichotomy exists in younger students' reaction to older classmates. On the one hand, they may view these highly motivated students as "grade curve wreckers."
Or they may identify with the student who turned to a 40-plus woman and sighed, "I wish my mother would go back to school too."