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Businessman, father and UI freshman at 48

Fri., Aug. 22, 2008

Mike Andrews has the kind of high school record colleges salivate over.

A GPA near 4.0. Top SAT scores. National Merit finalist.

It’s a record from 1978, but still. When classes start Monday at the University of Idaho, Andrews will be there bright and early for his differential equations class, a baby boomer among the echo boomers. A former business owner, inventor and day trader among the fresh young faces.

“It’s exciting, because it’s something I have always wanted to do,” said Andrews, 48, who has a house in Spokane Valley and an apartment in downtown Moscow. “It’s a little bit unnerving at the same time. You don’t know how much gray matter has atrophied over time.”

The new normal

With classes set to begin at the region’s colleges over the next several weeks, Andrews represents a trend that’s been developing for years: adults returning to college to finish degrees or add them. According to the University Continuing Education Association, the number of boomers and other students of “nontraditional” age now outnumber traditional students – age 17 to 23 – on the nation’s campuses. And colleges have expanded offerings that appeal to such students, including night courses, online offerings and work-credit programs.

Andrews, though, is going the traditional route. He’s got a full 19-credit course load, is enrolled as a freshman, and expects to spend four or five years finishing a computer engineering degree with a creative writing minor.

It was the UI’s reputation for attracting National Merit finalists and scholars that prompted the idea to return to college. Andrews was watching the NCAA basketball tournament at a Coeur d’Alene sports bar in March with his wife, Meg, and daughter, Mia, who works in communications for the UI.

Mia mentioned the UI’s reputation for attracting National Merit scholars, who are in the top 1 percent of national high school graduates based on a variety of criteria. The UI has one of the highest enrollments for the National Merit program in the region; it expects to enroll 67 finalists and scholars this academic year.

“My wife and I looked at each other,” Andrews said. “My wife said, ‘Well, your dad’s a National Merit scholar,’ and she said, ‘You’re kidding.’ ”

Life experience

Andrews graduated from Coeur d’Alene High School in 1978 after growing up in central California. His father owned a wholesale plumbing distribution company, Plumb-Co Supply Inc., and he went to work there after high school.

Several years later, he became interested in computers and trying to develop software for the company’s inventory, so he took some night courses at North Idaho College. His plan – or his “ironic miscalculation,” as he called it – was to finish the inventory program and then return to college somewhere.

“What I discovered was, if you’re the only person who can understand the computer system, you’ve just made yourself indispensable,” he said.

Shortly thereafter, his parents sold him the business. With two young daughters at home, it seemed like a better choice than starting all over in college, he said.

For the next 14 years, Andrews built the company from one store to three – in Coeur d’Alene, Sandpoint and Spokane Valley – and 30 employees. He sold the company in 2000.

He also had helped invent, patent and market a new kind of sewer backwater device that had a lot of success – investors got back about 1,000 percent of their initial investments over several years, he said.

After selling the business, he spent “two really interesting, profitable years” as a day trader. And then he became “gainfully unemployed” – no laptop, no PDAs, lots of bike rides – for several years, until the conversation at the sports bar with his daughter.

Now he’s getting ready for another big adjustment.

“I haven’t had an alarm clock for seven years – which is going to change beginning next week,” he said.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or

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