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Dorm food and pop quizzes decades after most of their peers

SOUTH HADLEY, Mass. --Emma Ferguson's dorm room is sparsely decorated.

There are no posters featuring the latest band. There are no mementos from high school graduation. And no stuffed animals.

Instead, Ferguson's room at Mount Holyoke College is dotted with framed photographs of her daughter and granddaughter -- the signs of how she has spent much of the recent past in her 50-year-old life. Now, like more than 80,000 "nontraditional" students across the country, Ferguson is going back to school full-time to earn a bachelor's degree.

Ferguson moved around a lot -- mostly between New York, South Carolina and Greece, where graduated from high school at a time when, she said in her application essay, "to read as much as I did was unhealthy, and needle point was a much better time to occupy my free time." But in each chapter of her life, there was a teacher who helped her adjust. Only now does she have the time to earn her degree -- in psychology and education -- so she too, can become a teacher or a guidance counselor.

"If you're able to help one kid who's floundering for whatever reason ... it's a lot better than saying 'Hello, Emma speaking, how can I help you?'" like she did at a call center for years.

Unlike many of the students in her class who will change their hair color, best friends and majors several times, older students are more likely to be driven by a desire to help others, according to Robert Wiley, dean of the school of human services at Springfield College.

"Many have been full-time and part-time volunteers," he said.

Having a degree gives people who have an interest in public service a way to get the credentials to move beyond volunteering, Wiley said. And many baby boomers plan on staying invested in their community as they age.

In a study done by the Met Life Foundation and Civic Ventures, a nonprofit organization that deals with issues of aging Americans, half of adults between the ages of 50 and 70 said they are interested in taking jobs now or in the future that help improve the quality of life in their communities.

But the baby boomers aren't the first generation to return to college after their teenage years.

Sandy Baum is an economist who studies trends in age and pricing for the College Board, a nonprofit group of more than 5,000 educational organizations.

The biggest increase in older students returning to college happened in the 1970s, she said. By 1987, about one quarter of all college students were 30 and older, and have remained steady.

"Thirty years ago," Baum said, "if you look at difference in wages for people with a college degree and without -- that's gone up."

Someone like Suzanne Salvo, who sent five children to college, could do well for herself 30 years ago. But now she wants to do better.

The 55-year-old recently began her second year at Wellesley College, and is majoring in psychology and religion.

For Salvo, doing better isn't just about money, although she will need to do well financially to achieve her goal of establishing a foundation to help abused women.

"At this point, I'm not going for the American Dream to get a job that's going to rake in millions," she said. "It's more to be better equipped to give back."

After about 30 years, going back to school isn't easy. There are, of course, potential social problems, but many schools have programs -- like Holyoke's Francis Perkins program and Wellesley's Davis Scholars -- set up just to support them, housing older students near each other, and sponsoring events just for them.

If the age difference doesn't present much of a social problem, Wiley said, is does usually lead to an academic one. After decades of not writing, not studying and not doing homework, it can be difficult to catch up.

"Sure, in community college I got straight As," Salvo said, "but this is different."

Salvo thinks the younger students are at an advantage, coming straight from high school. But she began her reading early, and tries to learn from her professors and the younger students.

"I will just surrender to the entire process," she said. "Dorm food is trivial compared to what I'm here for."

So far, Ferguson finds she is fitting right in. On her first day of class, she moved seamlessly among students a third her age. When 19-year-old Jennifer Richardson, of Boston, heard Ferguson was going to the same class as her, Richardson offered to show her the way.

"I'm a first year freshman," Ferguson said.

"So am I," Richardson replied, with a smile. No questions asked.

Earlier this week she forgot to bring her drivers license when she went out for pizza and a beer. All she had with her was her school identification card. She couldn't buy the booze.

"What's the matter," she said, "don't I look 50?"

Then she backtracked, laughing, "Well, maybe I don't look 50, but I look older than 21."

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