Back (or Forward) to School

December 13, 2007

Some of the students haven't stepped into a classroom for 50 years; the others won't go to college for another five or more. Instructors can't count on using common cultural references. But at least roommates know they'll get along.

Welcome to Grandparents University, a once-a-year academic program put on by several colleges as a way to attract more people to campuses and, perhaps, expand the institutions' donor pools.

The programs, arranged for grandparents and their pre-high school grandkids, are typically two or three days long over the summer and run a few hundred dollars for participants. They take classes together from university professors or graduate students, and live and eat meals together in the dorm.

Colleges sell the program as a generational bonding experience. And the benefits for the institutions are clear: They get their names out to future college students, while finding a different way to connect with alumni.

"The alumni who come for this aren't usually the ones who come back to campus for football games or basketball games," said Michael Steger, communications and alumni relations manager for Michigan State University's College of Natural Science. "To get them back for an academic program is important. Some of the grandparents have never been to college and it's the first time they're living in a dorm. They're just as excited as the kids."

Alumni typically make up a large proportion of the adults who take part in the Grandparents University. But more and more, colleges are seeing others participate as well. They're parents of alumni, neighbors of the graduates, and sometimes people with no affiliation at all.

During the first year of the program at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, for instance, more than 75 percent of the grandparents were graduates. Coming up on its eighth summer, roughly half of participants now are alumni. Wisconsin says its program is the first of its type in the country. Organized by the university's alumni association and its extension program, the two-day workshop is for children ages 7 to 14.

Students in the program take six class hours of subjects such as art, botany, biotechnology and video game design. Sarah Schutt, director for alumni lifelong learning at Madison, said she expects close to 1,000 spots to be filled for next summer's program. The "majors" are based on the same areas of study that are available for undergraduates at the university.

“We see people who want to first and foremost expose their grandchildren to enriching opportunities and spend time with them in a meaningful way," Schutt said. "Some of the grandparents are concerned about whether or not their grandchildren are on the path to college."

Steger, of Michigan State, said his university's program often attracts grandparents whose children are alumni and who want to expose their own children to the campus. Steger said many alumni haven't been back for 30 or 40 years, and the university can use the event to show them what's new on campus. It's a "soft" sell, Steger explained -- no one is passing around a donation hat.

Michigan State's three-day event for 8- to 12-year-old students and their grandparents offers classes such as "Lego Robotics," "Care and Management of Horses," "Where Does Milk Come From?" and "Fun with Economics and Money."

This program, which is expected to attract up to 700 people in its third summer, is organized by alumni relations staff in several different colleges and units across campus. Steger said he expects it to sell out in less than a week. According to Michigan State, the program is self-supporting and relies entirely on the registration fees to cover expenses.

Several institutions have approached Michigan State about using its program as a model for similar start-ups. One is Central Michigan University, which is starting a Grandparents University this summer. Mary Lu Yardley, the university's executive director of alumni relations, said her past experience in admissions tells her that the program should be a good recruiting tool for the university.

Most of Central Michigan's courses will focus on science and technology, and Yardley said she expects to rely heavily on full-time faculty.

It will likely take years for the university to gather meaningful data on the giving patterns of the grandparents who attend the campus event. Steger and Schutt said they haven't seen such information about their program alumni.

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