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US colleges putting on an older face, with help from Net

By Kate Zernike, Globe Staff, 08/29/99

t is an enduring image, honed by ''Love Story'' and the J. Crew catalog. As autumn's leaves start to fall, fresh-faced college students flood back to campus, hauling duffel bags and laundry baskets out of their parents' station wagons, decorating their dorm rooms with tapestries and Absolut ads. For four years, their days are filled with lectures and tutorials, their weekends with football games and fraternity parties.

In reality, that picture is as faded as your father's letter sweater.

Today, only about 20 percent of college students nationwide are what most people think of as the average: younger than 22, living on campus, or going to class full time. Less than half are between the ages of 18 and 21 - and millions of students older than 35 have elevated the average age of the American undergraduate to 26.6 years.

''The traditional image of a college student, a white male between 18 and 22 from a relatively affluent family, is increasingly irrelevant,'' said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, the nation's umbrella group for colleges and universities. ''This is a trend in all colleges and universities; the difference is simply the extent. But it's obvious we're in the middle of a profound change.''

Now, the country's largest private university is the nationwide network of the University of Phoenix, which takes only students older than 23. Even elite schools like Harvard, Yale, Brown, and other New England institutions - where the shrinking pool of traditional students still clusters - are expanding their roles to tap into the huge potential profits to be made from the aging student body.

And at the several thousand other colleges nationwide, the new demographics are changing how and when schools teach, who is teaching, even the notion of what a campus looks like. Forget stadiums, pubs, or ivy-covered walls. What do the students in the new majority want most? According to the College Board, a place to park their cars.

The stereotype of Joe College, All-American Boy was born in the early 1800s, and was largely accurate until the early days of the women's movement.

Beginning in the 1970s, older students became the fastest growing group of undergraduates. Full-time students who were 25 years or older grew by 164 percent between 1970 and 1990, compared with an increase of only 18 percent among younger students. The jump was especially pronounced among women over 25; their ranks increased by 477 percent in that period. Students older than 40, too, increased by 235 percent.

The baby boomers who return to campuses this fall to drop off their own children will find them markedly different places. Only 13 percent of undergraduates live on campus. A third work full-time, half attend school only part-time. Less than half say they rely on mom and dad to pay the bills - and almost a quarter have children of their own.

Even an expected increase in the number of high school graduates nationwide over the next few years won't change that picture much, demographers say; any increase will be limited to a handful of states.

For colleges and universities, the new definition of Joe College means rethinking often pejorative views of older students. In attitude and ambition, the new students aren't like those in the old continuing-education programs, taking a few courses in pottery or paralegal studies. The overwhelming number are pursuing an undergraduate degree. And more and more, colleges are demanding they meet the same admissions standards as their younger classmates.

''Higher education has largely ignored these people up until now,'' said Harold Hodgkinson, director of the Center for Demographic Policy outside Washington, D.C. ''Registrars used to refuse part-timers. ... They said the only people who mattered were those who were going four years to get a degree. Now, they're paying less attention to the group that used to be the dominant symbol of higher ed.''

The new symbol, then, might be someone like Jessica McDonald. At 36, she had been out of school for 19 years, having bailed out after a few months of freshman year at UMass-Boston. She had started her own makeup business in Faneuil Hall, moved to Italy for 10 years to work in fashion, and then became ''excruciatingly bored,'' as she says now. ''I needed to use my mind.''

She worried about making it through as an older student and raising her then-5-year-old son at the same time. But like the profiles of other older students nationwide, she became one of the more motivated, and was asked to join the honors program and tutor others. Now 42, she expects to get her degree this spring.

Classrooms look different right down to the walls - in some cases, there are essentially no walls, only a computer screen that allows a student to earn a degree from an elite school halfway across the country.

In the 53,000-student University of Phoenix system, a for-profit college founded in 1979, education takes place in nondescript buildings at sites across the country. Professors are required to be employed full-time in the specialty they teach.

More traditional schools are revamping themselves to suit adult learners, squeezing 15-week credits into five, for example, and creating accelerated bachelor-degree programs. According to a 1991 College Board survey, 15 percent of undergraduate institutions offered on-campus housing for older students, and 30 percent had special orientations for adults. ''Office hours'' are now done by e-mail. Even marketing has been affected: Admissions brochures are being redone to include photographs of older students.

Nothing in the world of higher education is burgeoning so fast as on-line education, with 1 million adults reported to be taking courses via computer this year, and twice that number by 2002. Institutions from state universities to Stanford are setting up satellite campuses across the nation where students can take so-called distance learning courses via computer. They offer the same coursework, grant the same degree, and in most cases, charge the same tuition. But they are far cheaper to run - no need for campus centers or athletic teams.

''These are the cash cows,'' says Hodgkinson, a former dean at Simmons and Bard colleges. And the entrepreneurial world has taken note. Junk bond king Michael Milken is behind a new distance learning venture. Harcourt General, the company that owns Neiman Marcus and Harcourt Brace, last year hired former Massachusetts education commissioner Robert V. Antonucci to start an on-line university complete with deans and provosts. The company chose Cambridge as its headquarters because it is such a mecca for traditional higher education.

The demise of the traditional campus hasn't gone unlamented. The emphasis on older students, most of whom are seeking career training, has made many traditional schools move away from liberal arts toward professional-degree programs.

The American Association of University Professors has fought to keep out institutions like the University of Phoenix and the new Harcourt company, worried about their use of non-tenured instructors. And many people worry about how to control quality of distance learning programs. ''The ability to evaluate quality has not kept pace with the availability of these programs,'' Hartle said.

Others, though, disdain the caution and glacial pace of change. ''The model of higher education has remained substantially unchanged for many, many years,'' said Laura Palmer Noone, provost of the University of Phoenix. ''Institutions are going to have to rethink what it is they are here to do. There is a huge need out there.''

This story ran on page A01 of the Boston Globe on 08/29/99.
© Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.

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