When Teresa Tanzi thought about going to college in her 30s, she took some classes at a local university and looked around at some other programs aimed at older, nontraditional students. But she was unimpressed.
''They just didn't have big aspirations. The attitude was, 'Yeah, we're giving you a degree because we understand degrees are important,' " said Tanzi, now 33. ''It was just not at all what I wanted."
Then she discovered a small program at Brown University that enrolls older students. She didn't know Brown was a highly selective Ivy League institution, but was drawn to its emphasis on a rigorous liberal arts education. ''They made me feel like they respected our adult lives and really were interested in helping us pursue what had been put off -- that we didn't have to settle for continuing education, that we deserved a full, real education full of challenges and access to undergraduate courses," said Tanzi, who didn't go to college after high school because of financial constraints and discouragement from her family.
Tanzi, who lives in Narragansett, R.I., is majoring in public policy and spending her summer doing research on welfare reform with a professor.
Even schools that don't have large programs tailored to older applicants often find nontraditional students to be among their most dedicated and thoughtful scholars, and a boon to campus diversity. And some observers think more older students are searching nationally for their best educational options, instead of signing up at the school down the road.
''In each and every admissions cycle, we will see one or two talented students [applying to Columbia] who will go to Smith or Tufts or Yale," said Curtis Rodgers, associate dean for admissions and enrollment management at Columbia's School of General Studies. ''In the past few years, I've seen more schools catching on in terms of how interesting these students are."
Contrary to stereotype, several Ivy League institutions and other prestigious colleges maintain programs designed to recruit nontraditional students and offer them the luxury of a top-notch liberal arts education. They range from lower-priced classes taught mostly at night to accommodate working people, at the Harvard University Extension School and the University of Pennsylvania, to the full-priced program at Columbia University, where more than half the students attend full time.
Programs for nontraditional students at elite universities have a variety of admissions policies. The Harvard Extension School takes a welcoming approach. Anyone who earns a B-minus or better in three courses, one of which has to be a class on academic writing and research, may become a degree candidate and will also qualify for federal financial aid and Harvard scholarships.
Columbia's program for adult students, called the School of General Studies, admits only about 40 percent of applicants. ''We want to make sure this is the right place for them," Rodgers said. ''If you just want to get your degree quickly, this is not the right place. It's a far too rigorous and time-consuming and, quite frankly, expensive education to look it at that way."
Among the 13,000 students taking classes every year at the Harvard Extension School, about 500 are studying for a bachelor's degree. While there is no age requirement, the average age of students at the extension school is 33. Classes cost about $550.
Students are required to take a sizable chunk of their courses with Harvard-affiliated faculty, to ensure that they are getting a real Harvard experience. If they have a high grade point average, they can also apply to take a limited number of regular Harvard College classes, and to write an undergraduate thesis.
Extension school graduates have been admitted to every one of Harvard's graduate schools, and many have gone on to other illustrious graduate programs and impressive jobs. From last year's graduating class, one student won a Fulbright scholarship to study in Uganda, while others were headed for graduate work at the Kennedy School of Government, Columbia,
At the University of Pennsylvania, about a third of the 6,000 students in the College of General Studies are working toward bachelor's degrees. While students can apply to take regular undergraduate courses, they tend to do most of their studies in evening classes that offer the same demanding curriculum, but at 40 percent of the cost of regular undergraduate tuition, said Kristine Billmyer, executive director of the college of general studies.
Students in Brown's Resumed Undergraduate Education Program and Columbia's School of General Studies have a more traditional campus experience.
Amittai F. Aviram earned his first bachelor's degree from Columbia in 1978, completed a doctorate at Yale, and eventually became a tenured English professor at the University of South Carolina. But Aviram was frustrated with the direction of literary criticism and eventually tired of the field. So he decided to sign up for a second bachelor's degree at Columbia, this one at the School of General Studies, in a new area of interest -- computer science.
Now Aviram, 47, works around the clock, sacrificing sleep to maintain his 4.0 GPA, even as his loans pile up. Though he lives in New York City, he has found it difficult to get to know students, and said some professors don't seem very interested in their undergraduates -- a peril common to many research universities. But he raved about the advising available for nontraditional students, and the seriousness of his education.
''Columbia does not kid around," he said. ''The expectations are extremely high, the pace is intense and demanding, and the workload is crushing. . . . It's pretty amazing and wonderful."
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