Better Late Than Never
More women hit the books...again

By Connie Lauerman

Among those picking up diplomas at college graduations this spring were many middle-age women.

It’s a trend that Carol Dunn, vice president of enrollment at Illinois’ Aurora University, says has been picking up steam for more than a decade.

“Women are catching up or have caught up,” she says.

They may be women who didn’t have the opportunity to attend college at the traditional age, or may have interrupted their schooling to marry and care for a family.

Rosario Diaz, 41, will complete her
bachelor’s degree in psychology this summer.

Some return to academia in pursuit of career advancement in the workplace; others to retool for an entirely new career.

The number of women older than 35 enrolled in college, either part time or full time, increased 90 percent from 914,000 in 1980 to 1.74 million in 2000, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Sheri Simon, 45, now a full-time student, started her college education three years ago, after her 20-year marriage ended in divorce.

“I worked in customer-service jobs for more than 20 years, but as far as moving into a management position, I need a college degree,” she says.

She has been empowered in the accelerated master’s degree program that will enable her to go directly to graduate school for a social-work program after completing her bachelor’s degree.

“I learned I was able to do much more than I thought I could,” she says.
Rosario Diaz, 41, didn’t finish her education years ago.

She went right into the business world and was making good money in sales management.

About five years ago, she grew dissatisfied with her work life and took five months off to travel to Australia and New Zealand.

Upon her return, she married and had a baby. When the company she was working for was sold and fell into turmoil, she left to stay home with her daughter, and then began to work on her degree part time.

At first she wanted to be a teacher, but then she realized her true dream was to become a therapist.

“It wasn’t a midlife crisis,” she says. “It was a re-evaluation, a taking-stock.”
Diaz says she is not uncomfortable attending classes with younger students, having worked with people of all ages in sales.

“There’s more respect because I’m older,” she says.

Mary Raithel, 49, will be starting her sophomore year this fall.

Now that her children are older, Raithel is preparing for a future as a high-school social-studies teacher.

A lifelong reader, Raithel, the oldest of a family of eight, was not able to afford college earlier in life.

She already teaches Shakespeare to seventh- and eighth-graders as a volunteer in a parochial school.

Her life as a working student can get pretty hectic.

This spring, for example, she rushed to the university for classes in between bus runs.
“If you think about all the juggling you have to do, it’s overwhelming.

“You just get up every morning and say, `This is what I have to do today,’ and you do that.”

At Loyola University, females make up the vast majority of the students in the School of Professional Studies, an accelerated program for working adults returning to school.

“I’ve worked at several universities in these kinds of programs, and this is the highest number of non-traditional female students I’ve ever seen,” says Robert L. Hasenstab, dean of the School of Professional Studies.

A desire for a college degree and thoughts of a possible career change brought Debra Pittman, 44, to the program.

“I had been in administrative positions where I was someone’s right hand, but I didn’t have a degree, so I couldn’t really move up to a management position,” she says.

Pittman’s “well-rounded bachelor’s degree” has a leadership-and- development concentration that she says will serve her well once she completes a graduate degree in clinical social work in a year and a half.

“I have one foot in each arena,” she says.

“I could go back to the corporate world, or I could move more quickly into management at a social-service agency.”


School Days

Full- or part-time college enrollment of women 35 and older keeps climbing:

— 2003 Digest of Education Statistics