Deidra Faye Jackson is a Ph.D. candidate in Higher Education at the University of Mississippi. You can find her on Twitter at @DeidraJackson11.
Check out these stats: Between 1995 and 2007, the average age of students enrolled in graduate programs has hovered steadily around 32.5 years old, and the numbers of nontraditional graduate students–those aged 40 and older–have substantially increased each year, based on additional federal government data.
We “OGs”–or older grad students–are entrenched in higher education and represent as much as 75 percent of all U.S. college students.
But you wouldn’t know it given the overwhelming attention higher education pays to traditional students. Life as a so-called “nontraditional” student in higher education institutions that typically foreground “traditional” undergraduates can be clarifying in ways that are both amusing and concerning. But when you’re an OG, a nontraditional graduate student, you learn to take it all in stride and use such insight to invigorate your academic goals.
Academia automatically typecasts you as nontraditional, if you’re (still) a student who’s lived on Earth for more than 24 years, the age that the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics Research and related education pollsters regard as the “defining characteristic” of this group. If you’re a person of color or hail from a rural part of the country, you’re also part of this mix, based on your minor representation compared to the majority.
For statistical purposes, age largely separates OGs from young coeds who don’t have the life, family, and work obligations that often impede graduation and the achievement of their educational objectives. In other words, OGs reflect the atypical college lifestyles that coalesce with those of institutional faculty and staff.
And often, this is where the hilarity–and unease–ensues.
While our numbers are strong, our influence often is less so. Based on our shared war stories, hidden cameras trained on OGs on many campuses today could reflect these scenes ripe for college-life comedy sitcoms:
Regularly showing your papers. You get used to being frequently second-guessed as a student when patronizing campus services, such as the student health center (as opposed to the employee health center). Routine is being asked the question, “May I see your student ID?”
Being both seen and unseen. You periodically acquire invisibility cloaks you didn’t know you had. Imagine being rendered temporarily invisible on campus sidewalks when approaching traditional students who are lobbying other (younger) student passersby for their votes on upcoming student ballots. However, there are other times when younger students see you in full technicolor; they eagerly hold doors open for you, perhaps sensing impending deaths, as one colleague quipped.
You’ll never truly know this audience. All grad students are not created equal. Whether pursuing master’s degrees or doctorates, advanced students of different stripes engage in varying levels of academic dialogues and collaborative work. In lecture settings, some might regard the over-32.5-year-olds as calming and level-headed influences during spirited graduate debates. As graduate students, we share similar age and experience differences that mirror those existing between traditional and nontraditional and undergraduate and graduate students.
Cohort confusion is real. You may be decades older than your postsecondary peers. Even among populations of traditional and nontraditional graduate students, varying life experiences and levels of maturity may make assigned academic groupwork challenging, if not enlightening.
All jokes aside, OGs, who may appear settled within their higher education environs and independently driven by their goals, should not inadvertently allow universities to take their maturity for granted, thus shortchanging their academic experience. Reaching out to an array of assets ranging from advisers and human resources to administrators and health and wellness staff can help OGs stave off or address more serious issues.
There’s something similar in the disconnect felt by some student-athletes who work and play hard, but aren’t affiliated with their school’s high-profile revenue-earning sports programs. When you’re a graduate student enrolled in a particular program, you know the extent to which resources are being expended in your favor. OGs, who regularly visit with their academic mentors, advisers or administrators, can help ensure they acquire all the possible benefits that their program can offer them.
Research focused on OGs having several years’ gaps between completing an undergraduate degree and beginning or resuming an advanced degree, recommends specialized advising. Despite their academic disruptions, OGs may be perceived as seasoned students, largely independent, and needing less supervision. For this reason, some OGs, in an effort to live up to this perception, may be reluctant to reach out to their adviser when they should.
Such an impasse should be crushed. Effective communication with advisers, mentors and other allies may clear issues that arise among nontraditional grad students.
OGs should make the most of HR and other campus employee services. It goes without saying that older students stand to benefit from any school-sponsored health screenings and programs, workshops and networking opportunities, or financial planning seminars.
So, nontraditional graduate students should rejoice! Though we may be older, and some of us thwarted by life’s disruptions, once we decided to return to school, we found our way back to academia and should do all we can to advocate for ourselves.
What experiences as a nontraditional graduate student can you share? What advice do you have for other OGs? Tell us in the comments!