Back to school

One of the chief objects of education should be to widen the window through which we view the world“.

Arnold Glascow

Betty Worden, an 82-year-old Royal Air Force veteran from Richmond Hill, Ont., stepped up to the dais at York University’s Glendon College in Toronto in the summer of 1998 to accept a bachelor of arts degree she’d been working toward for nine years.

At around the same time, 11 other seniors including Joyce McQuiston, Joseph Fromstein and Gloria Boyd, aged 71 to 83 received BAs from Woodsworth College, the University of Toronto’s adult education arm.

And across the metropolis, in Burlington, 58-year-old Finn Nielsen, a financial analyst, picked up his Master of Business Administration degree from McMaster University in Hamilton 25 years almost to the day he acquired a bachelor of science degree in mathematics from the same institution.

Notable feats or undertakings, all. But the real news is not that older Canadians are going back to school, but how many are showing up in learning institutions to complete educations cut short many years ago for vocatnal or other reasons.

In universities alone, Statistics Canada reports that part-time graduate students of all ages rose 20 per cent to 42,300 between 1986 and 1996. Those in their forties rose just over 61 per cent to 10,544. But graduates 50 years or older increased a whopping 103 per cent to 2,700.

The record for full-time graduate senior students is almost as glowing. Those of all ages moved up 37 per cent to 75,005. Those in their forties increased 125 per cent to 6,909. And those 50 years or older climbed 107 per cent to 1,410.

Why go back to the books?
The move back to school by mature Canadians can be traced to a long list of reasons. But putting in time a popular theory amongst cynics isn’t one of them. Ann Percival, of Winnipeg, president of the Canadian Association of University Continuing Education, a university-financed body that fosters adult learning at university level, and David Nimmo, director of pre-university programs at Woodsworth College, were quick to put that one to rest. Nimmo says he knows of no seniors who attend classes just for fun. “It’s hard slogging, and those who go on to get a degree put in a lot of effort.” Percival adds that most attend because they have free time and want to pick up on subjects they skimmed over when younger. “A few go to brush up on an old skill they can use to earn extra money. But to just put in time? No way. If their teachers don’t capture their interest, they don’t stay. They vote with their feet.”

Finn Nielsen’s return to the classroom stemmed more from practical than personal satisfaction reasons. It took him five years of classes once or twice a week to get his MBA, but he felt the degree was necessary for his career. “Corporations in the early 1990s were beginning to downsize as the recession deepened. For me, with only a degree in mathematics, that was a scary prospect. So it jolted me into going after an MBA.”

And this sort of trend isn’t far removed from another that academics say is becoming more evident. A recent study by Montreal’s International Federation for Ageing notes that as the demand for part-time paid services increases, more and more older adults, freed from full-time employment, are enrolling in degree and continuing education programs.

Statistics Canada recently reported 16,390 50-plus students attending part-time classes at Canadian universities. But Nimmo figures that’s just the tip of the iceberg. “Local school board and other programs must account for three times that many senior students once you include another 2,800 50-plus students taking full-time university courses. Overall, I figure at least 80,000, perhaps 90,000, older men and women are taking formal full or part-time courses of one sort or another.”