The Case for Older Students

To celebrate the 100th issue of its journal, Academic Questions, the National Association of Scholars recently posted an article on its website recommending “One Hundred Great Ideas for Higher Education.”

I would like to suggest one more: Don’t let anyone under age 25 attend college.

Admittedly, it does sound negative to prohibit people in the age cohort of 18 to 24 from pursuing higher education. Nor does the idea seem feasible since the reality is that, as the cost of higher education keeps ballooning, few colleges and universities can afford to turn away students.

Another reality is that results comparing success rates between non-traditional students (typically defined as age 25 and older) and traditional students (typically defined as ages 18 to 24) are mixed. Non-traditional students tend to need more developmental coursework and are more likely to take longer to complete their degrees because of all the external demands on their time.

But when it comes to in-class success, non-traditional students tend to outperform their traditional counterparts, mainly because of their greater drive to learn in college.

My own experience bears this out.

This semester, I am teaching two sections of Western Civilization (I and II), and I have just finished teaching a course on historical leadership in a program designed for working adults. Western Civ II, which meets twice a week during the day, is composed entirely of traditional (that is, younger) students. The other section, which meets once a week at night, is mixed. The course on historical leadership also met once a week at night and was composed of non-traditional students.

In all of those classes, I use Machiavelli’s The Prince. Without question, the non-traditionals in the leadership class have proven to be the better students. Not only did they do the required reading, but they also were fully engaged in each class, which lasted four hours. They asked questions, gave their opinions, challenged me and each other, sought further clarification about passages in the text or fuller explanations of Machiavelli’s historical context.

Some of them even did additional reading and research on their own, and brought their findings to class. All were enthralled by The Prince and intrigued by the subtleties of Machiavelli’s thinking. 

Not so in my Western Civ II class, where the traditional students were largely unmotivated and apparently uninterested in the subject matter. It’s not that they are unintelligent or disrespectful or rude. They don’t chat or text or look at Facebook during class. For the most part, they are very nice.

But, with the exception of four of five students, they don’t read the assignments, they don’t ask questions, and they certainly don’t participate in classroom discussions. Not a single student was shocked by The Prince or dismayed by Machiavelli’s conclusions. To them it was no big deal. Murder as a political weapon or duplicity in personal relations is something they are used to from TV, movies, video games, and the Internet.

I asked several students if they thought I was doing a bad job in the class and they said no. But when I asked what I could do differently to encourage them to speak up, they couldn’t offer any suggestions.

In contrast, the non-traditional students in the historical leadership class told me again and again that my class was their favorite in the program thus far, that they were learning a great deal, not only about Machiavelli and the Italian Renaissance, but about reading, writing, and thinking. They never grumbled about the reading load or when I made them revise and rewrite their papers several times. Rather, they were truly grateful for (and amazed at) how much time I was willing to spend with them to help them improve their writing.

What accounts for this difference between these students and my students in Western Civ II? I think it boils down to experience. The non-traditionals have experience in the world and can readily relate it to the subject matter, which has made them more motivated and interested in learning.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau understood this, having observed in Emile that relations “of effects to causes whose connection we do not perceive, goods and ills of which we have no idea, needs we have never experienced—these are nothing to us. It is impossible by means of them to interest us in doing anything which relates to them.” 

So did Alfred North Whitehead, who pointed out that the “true practice of education must start from the particular fact, concrete and definite for individual apprehension, and must gradually evolve towards the general. The devil to be avoided is the cramming of general statements which have no reference to individual personal experiences.”

And so do modern cognitive scientists. In The Art of the Changing Brain, James Zull informs us that people learn by adding new experiences to their old ones. Why? Because when learning something we “blend the old and the new, and in blending we create whole new networks. We construct our understanding using part of what we already know and part of what is new.”

Higher education suffers because most traditional students lack worldly experience. This in turn makes it extremely difficult—and in some cases impossible—for their professors to draw them in and increase their understanding and interest in a subject, let alone their desire to learn it.

They would be much better served if parents, high school counselors, and even President Obama himself encouraged them instead to get some real-world experience—whether serving in the military, joining the Peace Corps, or holding a regular job for a few years—before thinking about college.

They might actually discover that being successful and finding satisfying work doesn’t always require a college degree. And if they do choose college, they will be less likely to squander their time and more likely to value the experience, not only for the economic advantages it can bring, but for the intellectual benefits it can confer. 

I spent time in the Army before going to college. When I got there, I wasn’t college material in many respects, but I persisted and was successful because I had matured as a person. My experience gave me perspective and made me feel that I was pursuing something worthwhile that resonated with my life. More importantly, I had professors who helped me to articulate my hungers and raise me to a higher level of awareness.

Most traditional students lack that fire in the belly. They are in college because it is expected of them, and this makes them defiant. They doubt that anything we can teach them is relevant, useful, or will have an impact their lives. Above all, they lack humility and the ability to self-reflect, which would enable them to see that they may actually need help learning from someone else. 

What they need is experience.