Class action: older students pursue studies

Across Canada, older Canadians are heading back to school. Not as teachers, nor volunteers, but as students picking up degrees and diplomas in every field imaginable.

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 years ago for vocational 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 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.

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 Universityontinuing 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."

Part-time workers are students
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."

Another adult education path is a specialty of local school boards — two-hour arts and crafts courses, tai chi, ceramics, dancing, art and language history.

Still another is vocational-skill programs sponsored by many of the younger universities — Toronto’s Ryerson Polytechnic University is one — or a post-secondary learning institution such as Vancouver Community College in Vancouver, Red Deer College in Red Deer, Alta., Grant MacEwan College in Edmonton or Red River Community College in Winnipeg.

What of the future?
Sandra Kerr, co-ordinator of Ryerson’s seniors’ program, reports rapidly rising interest by seniors in that university’s curriculum. "Two years ago, we had 150 seniors enrolled. Today, there are 400. And I’ll be surprised if we don’t have 600 two years from now. Why? One reason is the growing number of seniors with at least some university training. These individuals are among the bulk of seniors who return to school later in life for further education.

"Studies also show that the more you’re mentally stimulated, the better your health is likely to be. And, of course, housewives, retired lawyers and accountants and others enrol in courses to test what might have happened had they pursued one or more of their early-life dreams to be an actor, an architect or a writer," she says.

"Everyone has a reason for coming. But no one I know comes just to put in time. And that’s maybe because seniors have the experience to know just how futile that would be."