When my dad shows up for class on the University of Miami's palm tree-covered campus, he wears business casual. He looks a bit like Christopher Walken—extra-large forehead, thin but well-defined lips, blue eyes hooded with wrinkles, and a head full of silver-gray hair. Young people around him talk and flirt in T-shirts, shorts, tank tops, and flip-flops. This is when he feels different, out of place.
But once he sits down in class, all of that fades away. In the movie version of this story, the other college students would make fun of him, or maybe make him their mascot—taking him to frat parties and teaching him to do keg stands. But in reality, the students don't pay much attention to him at all. He's just another student in their class—albeit, a 60-year-old one.
Maybe they're just used to it. Thanks to the Great Recession, nontraditional students—those who are over 25, fully independent, a single parent, enrolled part-time, or without a high school diploma—now outnumber traditional students. In 2013, the last year that the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) required data submission, 32 percent of undergrads were over the age of 25, which marks a significant shift toward older students. Of course, going back to school at 25 doesn't quite capture the reality for my dad, or other students 40 and above. In 2013, there were 1,627,927 college students over 40 in the United States, 9 percent of undergrads that year.
My dad went to a community college right out of high school in the small Appalachian town where he grew up. He wanted to be a journalist, but it seemed out of reach. He did poorly in his classes—more interested in alcohol, pot, and girls. After two years, he transferred to a small Bible college in Tennessee. He did much better there, but he lost his religious commitment by the end of the first year.
When my dad left the Bible college, he got a job at the local newspaper. He attended a community college for another year, but when the paper promoted him to police reporter, he stopped going to school. What was the point of a degree when he already had the job he wanted? By the time he and my mom moved to West Palm Beach two years later, he was committed to journalism.
Growing up, I idolized my dad and his job (by the time I was born, he'd gotten his dream job as book reviewer for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel). He got to read, think, and write for a living. He got to meet famous authors and moderate panels at book events. With his encouragement, I majored in English and creative writing at Bryn Mawr College.
And then, in 2009, around the time President Obama was bailing out Wall Street, the Sun-Sentinel laid him off after 23 years. It was the beginning of the end for the newspaper industry. There were 55,000 full-time newspaper journalists in the United States in 2007, and that number was cut down to 32,900 in 2015. My dad, who'd worked in print for his entire career, had no idea how to land a job in the digital age. Many of his colleagues had to make career shifts. Photojournalist Russ Kendall, who opened a pizza catering business in the period before more layoffs at his paper, started a private Facebook group called What's Your Plan B?, a place for former and current journalists to "move forward with a successful Plan B." Other industries also laid people off in droves; finance and insurance, retail, and construction were among those hit particularly hard.
My dad didn't want a Plan B, but Plan A wasn't exactly working out. He thought a lot about turning to higher education to update his skills, like plenty of other people over 40. So he enrolled in the University of Miami, where he could earn his bachelor of general studies, a course of study designed for people returning to school.
There's a clear correlation between the 2008 financial crisis and mature students returning to college. In the years leading up to the crisis, between 2005 and 2007, the number of mature students in college increased by only 2 percent. In the years directly after the crisis, between 2007 and 2009, that statistic increased by 18 percent, according to the NCES. Many people were unqualified not only for jobs outside their chosen fields, but also within them because a decrease in the number of positions meant more competition. Bachelor's degrees became a near requirement. People went back to school to refresh their skills, get a degree, and increase their marketability.
Reentering university life as a member of AARP wasn't exactly easy for my dad. He'd heard that even top schools had relaxed their standards, that the students would be lazy and only interested in partying. He's been surprised. He doesn't see students roll into class hungover. He sees smart, motivated students who work hard—harder than he expected. He's still learning how to study, and it amazes him how much time it takes to be a student. He got a 72 on his first Spanish test, but he's vowed to do better.
As the recession improved, a large number of nontraditional students went back to work and didn't graduate. Plus, fewer students enrolled—between 2011 and 2013, matriculation of mature students decreased by 5 percent, according to the NCES. But my dad's still there, and since he feels like he has options, college for him is more about learning for its own sake.
Last week, his Spanish teacher paired up her students for an oral exam. My dad and his partner practiced all weekend. My dad felt grateful to his partner because he had some previous experience with Spanish and helped correct his mistakes. But after the exam, his partner sent him a text message thanking him: "It's nice having a partner who cares and puts the effort forth. It is all going to start coming together for you. I couldn't imagine starting from scratch like you have."
Follow Rachel Mabe on Twitter.