75 and in college? Some senior citizens spurn traditional retirement for a degree
Photo courtesy of U-M.
On a snowy Saturday night in December, John Graves sat watching a performance of Handel's Messiah at Hill Auditorium when a fellow patron leaned over and asked, "Do you come to this concert every year?"
The question was simple on the surface. Many people make the trip to Ann Arbor during Christmastime to watch University of Michigan's annual Messiah performance.
However Graves, from Jackson, was not one of them.
"No. I actually avoid Ann Arbor," Graves responded.
To him, Ann Arbor represented a missed opportunity. Forty years before, Graves moved to Michigan after being accepted to the U-M Law School. A sick father and money concerns kept him from immediately enrolling, but a letter promising accepted applicants, many of whom were drafted into the Vietnam War, entry into any future class kept the spark alive.
Over the next 40 years, Graves, who received his economics degree from the University of Wisconsin, got swept up in education. He spent roughly a decade as a teacher and football and basketball coach, earned his doctorate in education administration at Michigan State University and served as superintendent for five school districts. When he attended the Messiah concert that snowy Saturday, Graves supervised a staff of more than 500 as the superintendent of the Jackson Intermediate School District.
Yet despite a wildly successful career in education, "the pull of the law school," as Graves puts it, had never waned.
"As I was driving home that evening from the concert I said to myself. 'John did you hear what you just said to a stranger?' " Graves recalls. "That Monday morning I called the law school. Saying that out loud to somebody had helped me see how much I really wanted to do it."
Graves presented his acceptance letter, circa 1960s, and accompanying note to the law school, stepped down as superintendent and enrolled in the law school five months later.
This December, at age 66, Graves graduated cum lade from the law school. He's awaiting his bar exam results now.
Graves is far from the only senior citizen attending college late in life. Though each has a unique reason —fulfilling a lifelong dream, brushing up on skills to become more employable or plain curiosity— hundreds of elderly take college-level courses and earn degrees each year.
At both schools students 65 and older receive a 50 percent discount on tuition. Select schools throughout the nation, including Western Michigan University, offer senior citizens free tuition.
"It's very affordable," says Bia Hamed, program manager with Eastern Michigan University's extended programs.
"A lot of seniors are coming back to school to retool, to learn the latest technology and just to update their skills. That's attributed to being competitive in such a bad economy," she continued. "Some just want to spend their time bettering themselves and learning something."
A conversation with DeWitt "Dean" Davis is similar to one with any other soon-to-be graduate. The Masters of Public Administration student recently finished his coursework at U-M's Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy and is contemplating working for a contracting company —that is if he can secure a job— or joining the Peace Corps.
He liked his policy classes but struggled in math courses and even came close to failing one, he says. Like most college students, he's had an array of experiences that have stretched his abilities and fueled his imagination: He's been a water taxi captain, trekked the mountains of Nepal three times and as recently as two years ago he taught skiing.
Yet there are many things that set the 75-year-old student apart from his peers. Obviously, there's his age. His hearing has eroded with time and even though he uses a hearing aid, hearing in a noisy environment can still be a struggle.
There are also more nuanced differences. Davis has been a small business owner and a real estate investor and he knows what it's like to lose the bulk of his money due to the 2008 and 2009 real estate market crash. Finding employment after the downturn hit was difficult for anyone, but especially so if you were 71, says Davis, who decided to get his MPA at U-M after the market crashed.
"I want to stay involved and I need to stay involved. But I also need to make some money," Davis explains.
Davis represents a group of senior citizens who yearn to continually learn, but also have found switching careers late in life a challenge.
"Because of the economy a lot of folks 50 and older find themselves still in the work force but suddenly without a job. So there's a lot more retraining going on from that standpoint," says Michigan AARP representative Mark Hornbeck. "The unemployment rate for people 50 and older is higher than it's ever been."
The unemployment rate among workers 55 and older was reported at 6.2 percent in March, up from 5.9 percent the month before. The average unemployed older worker has been out of work for 56 weeks.
Davis says that even if he weren't in need of a career change he "would never elect to do nothing" and would likely "just hang out in school and take some history, literature and art history courses."
"Learning is fun," Davis offers.
"It's was very stimulating for me to be engaged in really good conversations and discussion of policy," he says. "A brain is just like the body. If you stop using it, it deteriorates."
Davis says when he told others of his return to college he usually received one of two reactions. "Some people react very positively. They say 'I hope when I get to be your age I'm like you.' Some people just can't figure it out."
"What was really interesting is how many people told me what they would like to do of a similar nature. ... People in highly respected professional roles shared with me ‘I'd like to go back and do this' and 'I’m almost jealous.' "
Tic-toc, tic-toc, tic-toc.
Graves sat in a criminal law class—the professor of which graduated from law school the same year Graves graduated from undergrad— struggling through a timed test and wondering to himself, "John are you doing this? What's with this?"
Just two years before Graves sat at the helm of an entire school district and employed an executive secretary to do all his emailing and scheduling for him. Yet during that test he was surrounded by 20-year-olds, once again having to prove himself.
"You sit in class and you watch these kids sitting at their desks and their hands flying over their computers. Mine don't do that," Graves says. The technology, combined with time limits on computerized tests, offered unique "challenges," Graves says.
"Certainly there were moments within my time there that I didn't find it enjoyable," Graves says. "But It's something I chose to do. It's the mountain I decided to climb."
The challenges associated with that climb weren't simply academic, either. Graves says adapting, or rather readapting, to the college lifestyle was both interesting and, at times, exhausting. Graves and his wife attended a law school Halloween party as ketchup and mustard. He arranged vacations around his school schedule and swapped many nights of would-be lounging for studying.
"Law school is a very intense experience. If you spend time with people in intense experiences, you're going to establish friendships," he says, later adding that his fellow students "invited me to many different activities, some of which fit and many of which did not."
Davis, on the other hand, found the age gap between him and his peers difficult to bridge.
"There's a little bit of a communication problem," he says. "I think some of the younger students just didn't know how to address me because I was older than some of their professors."
Nonetheless, Davis says his favorite part of the past four semesters was the conversations he had with fellow students and faculty.
Like any college graduate, Graves and Davis now face a looming question: What's next?
For Davis, completing his coursework means, hopefully, that he can rebuild his savings.
For Graves the question means determining exactly how he should make use of his law degree. A full-time job? Contract work? Volunteering? Should he participate in education law, which would combine his new degree with his wealth of experience, or should he pursue labor law, which is what originally sparked his interest in law school more than 40 years ago.
"I waiver between OK you’ve done it now don't worry about it, just go play golf,' and saying 'OK, you've had an opportunity, now how are you going to make the most use out of that,' " Graves says.
One thing, however, is clear. Graves' retirement will be anything but traditional.
"The law was much more intriguing and interesting and captivating than I had expected it to be," he says. "Some people like to fish. Some people like to play golf or build a boat in their basement. I find the study of law to be a very intriguing experience."
According to Hornbeck, the AARP representative, the way the aging population approaches retirement is changing— and fast.
"One thing that we've learned about the boomer generation through surveys and focus groups is that they just don't see themselves as old." he says.