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Tuesday, December 10, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Older students return to school to exercise minds, shape new careers

Brona Trutton listens intently during her math class at North Idaho College on Wednesday in Coeur d’Alene. At 74, Trutton has decided to finish her bachelor’s degree. (Kathy Plonka)
Brona Trutton listens intently during her math class at North Idaho College on Wednesday in Coeur d’Alene. At 74, Trutton has decided to finish her bachelor’s degree. (Kathy Plonka)

You’re never too old for back-to-school, at least that’s the mantra of Hayden’s Brona Trutton, 74, who puts her oxygen in her backpack with her books and takes the elevator to her math class at North Idaho College.

Two courses at a time, Trutton is working toward her bachelor’s degree – a goal that has eluded her since she was 19.

“It keeps my mind active and my soul fed,” Trutton said, taking a break from writing a paper on Thoreau. “What else can I ask for? It amazes other people but it doesn’t amaze me.”

Trutton said it’s a too well-kept secret that college classes can be cheap if you are older. At NIC, Trutton pays $25 per class plus $5 per credit. Tuition for her University of Idaho Coeur d’Alene courses is more, but still less than what nonsenior citizen students pay.

By law, Washington offers a tuition waiver for students 60 and older who aren’t seeking a degree.

“We are on a fixed income,” said Trutton, whose daughter and 9-year-old granddaughter live with her. “We can afford it. I spend more than that on luncheons.”

Yet the majority of nontraditional students, those older than 25, don’t qualify for tuition waivers or discounts. Often the cost of college is a large part of the equation in people’s decision to go to school later in life.

This is true for the influx of baby boomers returning to colleges and universities. Many boomers seek two-year degrees at community colleges, especially if they are changing careers or improving skills.

Of NIC’s 5,779 students enrolled during fall 2014, 136 were 60 or older while 211 students were between ages 50-59.

In 2008 – the height of the Great Recession – the American Association of Community Colleges launched the Plus 50 Initiative to invest in community colleges to create or expand campus programs that engage the 50 and older student population, focusing on workforce training or preparing for new careers. Clover Park Technical College in Lakewood received a grant along with 138 community colleges across the nation.

Since 2010-11, 12,192 baby boomers have completed a degree or certificate because of the Plus 50 Initiative.

After the Great Recession, many people found themselves without jobs. Other realized that with lower 401K balances and reduced home values they need to work past retirement and wanted a new career.

Baby boomers also are strong entrepreneurs. According to a recent Gallup study, baby boomers who don’t currently own a business are twice as likely as millennials to start a business in the next year.

“Just walking in the door the very first morning is super intimidating,” said Jan Shannon, 53, a full-time student at Eastern Washington University who hadn’t been in a classroom for 35 years. “I just felt like a total geek. But then everyone just assumed I was a teacher.”

Just 1.1 percent of EWU’s enrollment in Fall 2014 was students 50 and older. Enrollment in graduate programs is 4.4 percent for those 50-plus.

For Shannon, deciding to enroll at EWU was a financial decision heavily influenced by a spiritual calling to go to seminary school, a master’s degree program that requires a four-year undergraduate degree.

“I was giving up a full-time job with benefits,” Shannon said. “I’m mostly funding it on student loans. That’s scary at 50 years old.”

Especially when her career goal – an ordained minister with the United Church of Christ – isn’t high paying. Currently Shannon is an assistant pastor at Westminster Congregational in downtown Spokane.

After finishing her undergrad studies, she hopes to get accepted to a mostly online master’s of divinity program. She wants to stay in Cheney, with her wife and near her two young grandchildren.

Tim Orton, 59, will defend his Gonzaga University doctorate thesis Oct. 6 after a 10-year journey of higher education focusing on leadership.

Orton works for Spokane Community College as a manager of student programs. He plans to incorporate his thesis – in which he developed a workshop to raise self-awareness and change learned behaviors that stem from childhood – into his daily job. He also foresees doing workshops after he retires, if he retires.

To him, retirement is a somewhat outdated concept. The former policeman who transitioned into a banker and is now an academic is excited about his new career opportunities.

“I’m in good health,” he said. “I could go for another 20 years.”

Yet he doesn’t recommend expensive advanced degrees for people who do want to retire.

“You have to look at the cost-benefit ratio,” he said. “How long are you going to be in the workforce?”

Orton is a proponent for education at older ages, noting the average age of students at SCC is about 28 and most of the student government is filled with nontraditional students. He said two-year degrees are a good option for people looking to change careers or snag higher-paying jobs.

At age 20, when Orton nearly completed his bachelor’s degree, school wasn’t as intriguing. Perhaps that was because he was also working and raising a family. He saw it as a necessity.

“As I got older, I really enjoyed learning,” he said. “I wish I had the same attitude and spirit when I was in high school.”

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