ORONO, Maine — Lynn Pollard of Otis has worked for years as a substance abuse counselor and a home handywoman. Now the petite 51-year-old wants something different.
“I realized I didn’t want to spend the second half of my life dealing with people with problems,” she said. “And now that I’m over 50, I really can’t be running up and down ladders carrying drywall and buckets of paint.”
So in 2010, Pollard decided to start taking classes at the University of Maine in Orono, about an hour’s drive from her home. She’s working toward a degree in anthropology, the broad study of humankind and its effect on the planet. It’s her first foray into higher education.
“I want to dig in the dirt and learn about older cultures,” she said. “So I’ll still be dealing with people, but I won’t have to solve all their problems.”
Pollard has qualified for Pell grants and other financial awards and has not had to take on any debt so far, she said. That may change soon, because she’ll need some money for a study-abroad program in Peru this summer — but she’s hopeful field training will yield some viable job contacts for the future.
She has made friends of all ages at the Orono campus, she said, but that’s not her objective.
“I have a very selfish attitude,” she said. “I’m here to get my education now.”
The decision to pursue an undergraduate college degree at midlife or older is a serious one. The cost is considerable, the workload daunting and the return uncertain. But taking courses and completing a degree as a mature adult learner also can be an exhilarating experience, full of challenge and reward, that can lead to a satisfying new career and other, more personal opportunities.
According to Lori Wingo, coordinator of the Division of Lifelong Learning Advising Center on the Orono campus, a growing number of adult learners such as Pollard are registering for classes these days. Adult learners age 24 and older make up nearly 40 percent of the undergraduate student body within the University of Maine System.
Many are choosing majors with the promise of a particular career: engineering, business, nursing, education. But others, such as Pollard, are exploring the liberal arts and finding personal satisfaction there. The University Studies major is popular, too, allowing students to design their own course of study making use of previous coursework.
“Instructors love them,” Wingo said of the adult learners. “They come to class prepared, they participate, they ask questions.” Unlike some younger students, she said, “they realize this is their investment and their opportunity.”
‘Where knowledge matters’
Charlie Hildebrant knows something about that investment. The 47-year-old has worked as a landscaper for 27 years and owns a small landscape construction business in Dover-Foxcroft. But in the fall of 2014, he enrolled full time in the survey engineering technology program at UMaine.
“I want to be in a trade or profession where knowledge matters,” he said.
UMaine gave him credit for a few long-ago college courses. He conquered his anxiety about returning to academics during his first semester, when he earned a B in one class and As in all the others. He mastered daunting courses in calculus and physics. He’s now boasting something very close to a 4.0 grade point average.
But Hildebrant expects to be $40,000 in debt by the time he earns his diploma. Because his wife is a nurse who works full time and because they own a home, he said, he has not qualified for educational grants or interest-free loans. He is “very confident” he’ll find a job after graduation that makes the investment worthwhile, even at midlife.
“The surveying trade is very short-handed all across the country,” he said. “Surveying won’t make you a millionaire, but you can make ends meet.”
Adult learners and the ABCDE report
Across the seven campuses and multiple community centers of the University of Maine System, adult learners over 24 years old accounted for about a third of the total undergraduate student population of about 29,000 at the start of the fall 2015 semester. The majority — about 6,600 students — were between 25 and 39, and about 3,000 were between 40 and 64. About 150 were 65 and older. This headcount does not differentiate between students enrolled in online classes and those who are campus-based, because many take advantage of both options.
The percentage of adult learners is highest (64.8 percent) at the Augusta campus, which has no residential facilities, and lowest (18.8 percent) at the flagship campus in Orono. But there are many more potential adult learners not represented in these figures. A 2013 report for the University of Maine System found that there were an estimated 230,000 Maine residents who have started college programs but never finished them. The report, commissioned as part of the university’s Adult Baccalaureate Completion/Distance Education (ABCDE) initiative, explored barriers to completion of college degrees and opportunities to make it easier for adult learners to return to school.
The report found that adult students face a range of obstacles. These include course scheduling not designed to meet the needs of working adults; limited access to tutoring and other support services; a lack of affordability and financial aid; online technology that many older Mainers do not understand; a fragmented system for resolving questions related to admissions, advising, financial aid and transfer credits; inadequate Internet service in rural areas; and academic policies that don’t reflect the complexities of adult learners’ lives.
The University of Maine System has taken steps at each of its campuses and centers to remedy these obstacles, said Donna Seppy, who works in the system’s student affairs office. These include creating a renewable, needs-based scholarship just for returning adult students for up to $4,000 per student per academic year. That fund already has awarded about $770,000 to 246 returning students, Seppy said.
Each campus and center also has designated a “concierge” for returning students — a sort of one-stop problem-solver charged with helping adult learners settle into their academic programs as easily as possible.
These are relatively simple responses to the big problems identified in the report, Seppy agreed.
“But there are some big-picture solutions in progress, too,” she said, including a comprehensive, system-wide marketing strategy to attract and retain more adult learners, changes in application and admissions policies and a strategy to align academic requirements and policies across the system.
But with the University of Maine System embroiled in steep budget-cutting and efforts to streamline administrative and academic functions, Seppy said, those bigger-picture solutions for aspiring adult learners may take longer to materialize.