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Spanning spectrum of American schooling. Older college students add to campus diversity

`A CAMPUS where the average age is 17 is as unhealthy as a retirement village where the average age is 80,'' Ernest L. Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, said recently. ``College - The Undergraduate Experience in America,'' as the report is called, is the latest in a series of critiques of American education that the foundation has produced. One of the few bright spots in an otherwise somber assessment - and one that has been relatively overlooked - is the way American colleges are opening up to ``nontraditional'' students, those over 25 who for one reason or another have put off getting a degree.

The report devotes a number of pages to the multitude of arrangements - from evening classes to special ``weekend colleges'' - that American colleges are making for those who have work or family obligations that prevent them from being on campus full time. ``We are encouraged by the ways colleges have begun to embrace nontraditional students,'' the report says.

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In an interview, Boyer compared the campuses today in this respect to the years after World War II, when the GI Bill brought thousands of veterans back to school.

``One of the most remarkable moments in American educational history,'' is how Boyer recalled it. ``We introduced more diversity and, at the same time, more quality. Students were so determined, so energetic, so motivated. The classroom tended to be so much more vital.''

Campuses that had become the settings for a ``kind of 18-year-old's rite of passage,'' Boyer added, ``suddenly became places where the seriousness of adults was integrated.''

Adult students are bringing this same kind of seriousness to colleges today, the report says, confirming what university officials have been saying anecdotally (see pullout section of Oct. 24, 1986 Monitor). These students are more likely to come from working-class backgrounds, for example, and are striving for the kind of education that most people from more affluent upbringings take for granted. And while their high school grades often were lower than those of younger students, ``nontrads''' college grades tend to be higher.

The report also refutes the common notion that adult students are grim careerists with less interest in the liberal arts than regular undergraduates. A smaller proportion cited career and financial success as ``very important'' reasons for being in school, while a slightly higher proportion said that colleges should require more courses in the arts. ``Part-timers supported more arts than full-timers,'' Boyer notes.

Denise Patton, a mother of two who got her undergraduate degree at Alverno College in Milwaukee, Wisc., may be typical of many who went back to school for career reasons but found the required liberal arts courses genuinely enriching. ``I kept coming to the realization of how much I didn't know,'' Ms. Patton says. ``The whole world opened up before me.''

But just as many universities resisted the GI Bill (they considered it ``keep-them-off-the-streets legislation,'' Boyer says), so today many tend to keep adults cordoned off from what they think of as their ``real'' students, in separate classes with different teachers and often without any attention from the institution at all. ``Every place I turn around here, it's a Catch-22,'' says one older student quoted in the report. ``I can't even find someone to take my money.''

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``They are willing to take their money,'' Boyer observes, ``but they haven't been working to make them part of the community.''

For one thing, teaching adults is decidedly d'eclass'e in some academic circles. ``There's the view that if you're teaching these older people and if it's part time, you're somehow trivializing your own role,'' Boyer says. ``[That] you aren't somehow working with fresh minds who are themselves preparing to become scholars.''

Then, too, adult students often require faculty to depart from comfortable academic routines. Classes meet at inconvenient hours (which means, Boyer observes drily, not between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.). The result is that colleges often hire part-time faculty to teach part-time students, which ``reinforces that it's another world.''

Nevertheless, some campuses have taken large steps toward integrating adults and part-timers into the university mainstream. Brown University, for example, has about 100 nontraditional students who take courses along with regular undergrads but proceed at their own pace. And Brown is one school that is addressing the question that follows logically: If people are more focused and committed when they return to college after some life experience, then wouldn't it be healthy for more students to take some time off before or during their undergraduate years?

Brown will defer admission for a year for any entering freshman; about 40 do so each year (out of a class of 1,375), the admissions office says. Brown also awards special fellowships (from $1,000 to $1,500) for students who take time off before or during college to do significant public service work.

``If I could wave a magic wand, I would wish all students would take off a year or two and would engage in service,'' Boyer says.

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