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College Advice from a 75-Year-Old Who Went to School for 55 Years and Got 30 Degrees

His message to young people: Don't quit too soon.

by Michael Nicholson as told to Emma Collins
Sep 14 2016, 4:00am

Photo courtesy of Michael Nicholson

Michael Nicholson is a 75-year-old man who loves college. To date, he has earned one bachelor's degree, two associates degrees, 23 master's degrees, three specialist degrees, and one doctorate. He was enrolled in school for 55 years straight and has 30 degrees in total. Here is his advice to the class of 2020.

I get up at 4 AM, and I walk two miles at that hour. That doesn't mean everyone has to get up at 4 AM, but you do have to have some kind of a routine. If you sleep through your morning classes, you'll be running around trying to make up for lost time.

When I was in seminary school, we had to wear shirts and ties and suits. It's not like that anymore. What I see in the classrooms of today—frankly, I'm embarrassed. Everyone looks sloppy. They don't know how to dress. When I go to class, I wear khakis, and I wear sport shirts. I would not wear a T-shirt, I would not wear Levi's, I would not wear shorts, and I would not wear sandals, like all the girls do. Fifty and 60 years ago, girls wore shoes and socks, skirts and dresses. They did things with their hair.

These days, a lot of eating goes on in class, during the lectures. People come with their lunches, their bottles of pop and water, everything. A whole spread, along with their computers. They seem to have a good time. I usually sit in the last row myself, and I can see what they're looking at on the computers. I can see why teachers get frustrated. They're lecturing and giving material out, and the students are looking at their computers, looking at a whole lot of other things at the same time. Back in my time, you didn't dare fool around. Today, anything goes.

I was in school for 55 years straight. I liked it, and I was getting credentials—so in that sense, I was accomplishing something. I got used to being in school, and I wanted to keep going for as long as I could. The more I learned, the more I wanted to know. I'd love to be in class right now, starting this week. But a couple of years ago, I got shut down. As one doctor told me, "You're getting old." I'm trying to adjust to that, I guess.

I wasn't sure what I was going to do with my life when I took my first college course, but I had general ideas about what I needed to know. I went to Detroit Bible College, and every year, the president of the college would give the students a message entitled, "Don't quit too soon." He was trying to keep us all in school until we graduated. That would be my message to any young folks: Don't quit too soon.

It doesn't really matter what you study, but you should study something that truly interests you. Otherwise, you'll probably drop it along the way. The important thing is to get a degree. Then you have the option of going to graduate school, or you can start a career that has nothing to do with your major. Like my wife: She's educated as a teacher, and she did some teaching along the way, but for the last 37 years, she's been working in data processing.

I met my wife when I was at Bible college. Then I went away to Dallas, to seminary, for three years, while she was up in Detroit going to school. We wrote letters, and there was the occasional phone call. We were married between my third and fourth year.

Michael Nicholson with his wife, Sharon. Photo courtesy of Michael Nicholson

Seminary was my favorite degree program. That's where I really learned to be a student. I was away from home, on my own, and I had to produce good work to be able to go home with some self-respect. That meant that I couldn't leave my assignments to the night before. If I had to write a term paper, I had to start three weeks in advance. It made a student out of me.

I didn't get along with my roommate. He was very expressive, very emotional, and I've always been a quiet person. He always had a lot to say about a lot of different things, but he showed me a lot of good things. He had been there for two years before me, so he passed off some of his books to me, some of his old assignments. Don't battle with your roommate if you don't like them; they probably have something that they can teach you.

It's amazing what you'll learn if you can keep your mouth shut. Most people want to talk. If I listen to people, they actually pay attention. And I ask questions. I don't try to tell them everything I know, because usually they know more than I do anyway.

You can learn quickly from the other students when you're in a classroom; you can get their view on things. Find out where they come from, what their backgrounds are, what they have to bring to the class. And the teacher can talk about his experiences rather than simply feeding you lecture notes on the computer.

That's the purpose of college, after all—to get a job, of course, but also to broaden your horizons, expand your view of the world. You learn what's going on in the world. How did the world originate? Where are we headed? What are the interrelations of people on this earth?

You should listen to your professors, too. It's the professor's class, so don't look to be challenging him. But if you strongly disagree, talk to him. For example, in order to graduate with my degree in criminal justice—my 30th degree—I had to write a final project of at least 75 pages. Because of my Christian background, I chose faith-based prison ministries as a topic. In my research, I came across some information about a man who had turned toward Jesus Christ in prison. This man, I believe, is the person who fired the fatal shot from the grassy knoll during the Kennedy assassination. I have visited him in prison on two occasions in the past couple years, and I have 27 letters from him.

I had a number of conversations about this with the professor who was supervising my paper. We would talk about the Kennedy assassination, and I had to say, "My view is that it happened this way." If you come right out and say, "You're wrong, you don't know what you're talking about," well, you're looking for trouble. But if you tell the professor, "Here is my view, and here is the evidence"—and I always had some evidence to show him—you can at least discuss it.

I concluded my paper with a presentation of my view of the Kennedy situation, and his killer's turn toward Jesus Christ in prison. And my professor signed it. He was one of four PhDs, including one lawyer, who signed the paper, even though none of them agreed with me. That's because I made a convincing case, a case they couldn't disagree with. So that's how I go about dealing with professors.

I'm not in any debt. I started delivering the Detroit newspaper when I was 11 years old, and I kept that same paper route for 11 years, all through college. That's how I got through the first four years: delivering newspapers, every day of the week. Of course, back then, college didn't cost as much as it does today. But tuition has never been a problem. I had several teaching positions along the way, and I wrote parking tickets at one university for 11 years—but all the time that I was working, I was in school as well.

I know that the average student debt is $30,000 after four years of college. Is it worth it? I don't know. I'm afraid of debt. I never like to owe anybody anything. When you owe somebody something, you're under his or her control. But I don't know what else you can do, because you can't get the jobs you once could. I mean, I worked in the factory a couple of summers, but you just can't get those factory jobs anymore. The summer I worked at Chrysler, I just walked in. That was the 1960s. If you want those jobs now, I guess you have to go to China or someplace.

I would keep going for more college degrees if my physical condition didn't slow me down. So that's my advice: Stay in school. Stay in for as long as you can.

As told to Emma Collins. Follow her on Twitter.

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Michael Nicholson