California Seniors Make Their Way Back To College
Seniors are hitting the books later in life to change careers, to pursue unexplored passions, and to get degrees they never finished or had the chance to start.
For Heidi Lofgren, education couldn’t come first.
In her 20s, she went to work instead of college because her parents could only afford her twin brother’s tuition. As an adult, she supported her husband while he got a teaching credential at UC Berkeley, then she helped put her two kids through college.
Now at 69, it’s finally Lofgren’s turn to get a degree. She’s studying child development at Fresno State, and expects to graduate this spring. “I’ve always wanted an education,” she said. “This is my time, and I’m going to relish it.”
Around the state there are more than 134,000 people over the age of 50 enrolled in our public colleges and universities. They are hitting the books later in life to change careers, to pursue unexplored passions, and to get degrees they never finished or had the chance to start.
This story is part of a series from the California Dream project called Graying California. Seniors are the fastest growing age group in the state.
We profile some of California's 6 million seniors to better understand how their experiences point the way ahead and shape the California dream.
More than 130,000 are enrolled in community colleges and a few hundred are at UCs, but a small number of senior citizens are taking advantage of a little-known, decades-old California State University program.
In the 1970s, then-San Jose State President John Bunzel created the “Over 60 Program,” which waives tuition and most student fees for Californians 60 and older, regardless of income.
“In originating this proposal, my wish was to make a university education possible for those who never had the opportunity to have one when they were of the typical college age,” Bunzel said in a statement at the time.
The program started as a pilot at CSU’s San Jose and Long Beach campuses in 1975. Four years later, state Sen. Al Alquist of Santa Clara expanded the program to all campuses through legislation.
“The senator was a major proponent of higher education opportunities,” said Patrick Lenz, who worked for Alquist and dedicated his career to public higher education.
Most CSU campuses offered the program at some point, but budget constraints and capacity issues led many campuses to discontinue the program. Today only about a third offer it, and most of those serve few students.
"Providing access to an affordable, high-quality education for all Californians is a key aspect of the CSU mission,” a spokesperson for CSU said in a statement.
She cited other fee waivers its universities offer, like those for certain foster youths and some children of veterans. She said seniors will continue to be welcome on CSU campuses as long as space is available.
“The aging demographic is a global issue. It’s going to dramatically change societies across the world,” said Brian MacCraith, who heads the Age-Friendly University Global Network.
From his post at Dublin City University in Ireland, MacCraith is leading an effort to change how universities respond to the needs of a graying population.
“We’re talking about people retiring in their 60s, having 25, 30 more years of generally healthy life,” he said. “They’re seeking life with purpose.”
By tapping into colleges’ capital, both intellectual and infrastructural — the auditoriums, classrooms, athletic centers — MacCraith hopes to reimagine universities as centers for healthy and active aging.
“Not only in learning, but in creating opportunities in arts, culture, health and well-being, and entrepreneurship,” he said.
MacCraith and colleagues around the world have put forward a set of Age-Friendly University principles, among them intergenerational learning and second-career development. About 50 colleges and universities around the world have endorsed them, including a handful of California schools.
These are many of the same principles the creators of the Over 60 Program espoused more than 40 years ago.
"The benefits of intellectual stimulation on the mental and physical health of older people has been well documented,” wrote Sen. Alquist in a letter to Gov. Jerry Brown at that time.
He went on to tout the merits of intergenerational learning. “For the youth, this encounter provides a different perspective on many of the issues with which they are grappling in their college education," he wrote.
Today, about 200 people are enrolled in the Over 60 Program systemwide. Another roughly 800 students over 59 are enrolled at CSU apart from the Over 60 Program.
Heidi Lofgren credited the program for allowing her to pursue a degree. “It’s a great incentive to go to school,” she said. “School is awfully expensive.”
Fresno State tuition and fees for full-time students are about $3,300 a semester. Lofgren said that she could not afford that on her retirement income alone.
But at a time when CSUs turn away tens of thousands of eligible applicants for lack of space, and when tuition more than doubled in the last decade, the program has faced scrutiny. After all, many of the baby boomers who stand to benefit from it came of age at a time when public colleges were nearly free in California.
It cost about $150 a year to attend Fresno State back in 1974 when Wade Hedrick was starting there. Hedrick’s parents covered it, but he was more interested in the fraternity life than his business major. After a couple years he got a job at a Chevrolet dealership near campus and dropped out of school.
Forty-two years later, Hedrick still works at that dealership. But at 66 he’s back at Fresno State, hoping to finish his degree.
“My brother graduated, my wife did, two of my kids have, and I didn't finish college,” Hedrick said. “I'm the only one in my family that didn't, and it really bothered me for a long time.”
Through the Over 60 Program, Hedrick pays $7 a semester to attend Fresno State. He was prepared to pay full tuition until a chance encounter with the woman who oversees the program.
Kathleen Molina has been running the Over 60 Program at Fresno State for more than 15 years. She has 41 students enrolled in the program this semester, most pursuing master’s degrees. “I have a lot of students, they will say ‘I think I'm too old,’ and I say ‘You're never too old!’”
Molina doesn’t see the program as a strain on CSU’s limited resources. She emphasizes that Over 60 participants cannot sign up for classes until after regular students have, to ensure they are not taking seats from them.
She said more than half of the program participants are on fixed incomes and could not afford a CSU education otherwise.
There are plenty of opportunities for older folks to keep learning without working toward a degree, whether through programs like the Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes that offer courses at college campuses, classes at senior centers, or open online courses available from universities around the country.
“They could go get a degree at a community college, and there's nothing wrong with that,” Molina said. “But in some cases that's not what they want. They want a degree. They want to know more, and they want to learn more. It's a dream.”
After more than three decades working as an administrator at public colleges around the state, Lofgren’s dream is to enjoy the schools’ offerings herself, and put her child development degree to use expanding and enriching the small daycare she runs out of her house.
For Hedrick, this is a second chance. He’s taking school seriously this time. It’s also an opportunity to grow and change.
He’s majoring in communications, but he’s learning a whole lot more.
“I wrote a paper about Asians in Hollywood and how they’re represented unfairly,” he said. He watched the film “Birth of a Nation.” He learned about genetically modified organisms. He’s seen three different versions of “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
“I learned about how global warming is not a hoax,” he said. “My eyes have been opened up. People who don’t look like me, dress like me, it doesn’t mean they’re not good. My whole attitude about stuff has changed. I thought you went to college to get a better job; you go to college and become a better person.”
For younger Fresno State students like senior Daniel Gamez and second-year student Kaly Larghe, the cost of attendance weighs heavily, but they don’t begrudge their older counterparts going to school for next to nothing.
“I’m not hating on them, I think it’s a good thing,” Gamez said. “Get your education.”
Larghe said she nearly dropped out her first year because she was overwhelmed. She’s sticking it out for now, but said if she ends up leaving she’d be grateful for another chance, even if it’s later in life.
“If this program is still around, I could have all the opportunities that I couldn't today, you know, which is cool. I like that,” she said.
“I’m kinda thinking about dropping out,” Gamez joked, “and coming back when I’m 60.”
Thanks to the Special Collections & Archives Department at San Jose State University, where the papers of Senator Alfred E. Alquist are housed.