College at 60 (Change 6/77)

  Any time after the arrival of the first grandchild, the individual may avail himself of the license of age and withdraw himself from the social obligations he has thus far shouldered with a will–The time has come for the individual to begin his true adult education–

— from a description of Hindu culture in “Religions of Man” by Huston Smith

On a December afternoon last year, there was a graduation ceremony in the faculty lounge of Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus in New York. First, as per tradition, refreshments were served and students’ backs were patted. Next, several important speakers, including Fordham’s becollared vice president, delivered inspirational words. Finally, amid hearty applause, a number of neatly tied diplomas were handed out.

This was no ordinary graduation because these were no ordinary college students; most of the 17 neatly dressed people who bounded up to the podium were in their sixties or seventies. They had just finished a course of study at their own college, one that is open to adults who are at least 50 years old. Its name is the College at 60, and its small campus consists of a few offices and classrooms on the sixth floor of Fordham’s imposing, slablike Liberal Arts building. It isn’t a college in the strict sense of the word because it does not issue baccalaureates. However, this remarkable “bridge program to the liberal arts” does provide its 150 students, who range in age from 55 to 82 (the average age is 64), with some of the credits and a lot of the incentive they need to earn degrees.

Established in the fall of 1973, the “little college within a college” has stirred widespread interest, particularly in the context of the recent emphasis on “gray liberation.” Vic Miles, a TV newscaster in New York, hailed it as “the most refreshing alternative to a roleless retirement.” The program was acclaimed also by Patricia McCormack, education editor for United Press International, who said: “The road to the fountain of youth may be paved with books.”

While the College at 60 is neither a fountain or youth nor a miniature Harvard, it has been notably successful in rescuing many New Yorkers from the throes of mental stagnation. As such, it may provide a model for other educators who are interested in opening their doors to older students.

“The College at 60 filled an enormous void in my life,” says Donald Murphy, a semiretired actor. Murphy’s story is typical. After his wife died two years ago, he says, he often did little but watch television. Bored and depressed, he finally followed a friend’s suggestion, enrolled in the College at 60, and began working toward his degree. Now, having successfully passed the minicollege into the adjoining Liberal Arts College, Murphy reports that he has found a new reason for living “I’ve got motivation now,” he says. “Without it I just would have crumbled.”

Admission standards are fairly basic. Its brochure announces that the College at 60 is open to “men and women over 50 who are free in the daytime and have (1) a capability to learn from reading and (2) an inner urge to keep their minds from vegetating.” An admission interview, during which the applicant provides a brief personal profile, is usually sufficient for entry. Once admitted, students may sign up for the various freshmen-level seminars, which meet two hours a week for 14 weeks and cover philosophy, fine arts, science, psychology, economics, and history. Some are survey courses; others concentrate on topics special interest to the students, such as Psychology of Adulthood: Maturing and Aging.

Each completed seminar is worth two credits, and because these credits can eventually be applied to a Fordham degree, students in the College at 60 have to pay the regular Fordham rate of $72 per credit or $144 per course. There is a limited amount of financial aid available. The relatively high tuition scares off many students. The fact is that most educational programs for the old, including many in New York, cost far less.

Even if it were feasible to lower fees, Robert W. Adamson, the tough-minded founder and director of the program, would be opposed to such action. He believes that with low fees, or — still worse — with no fees, the student would be unlikely to get the maximum benefit from their school experience. One of the fundamental principles of the program, he observes — and one that distinguishes it from the other schools for retired people — is that it refuses to treat its students as special cases, financially or otherwise. “We don’t give anyone a free ride,” he says, “That’s not what we’re here for. We want our students to think of themselves as ordinary, capable, responsible adults — even if they don’t happen to be earning a wage anymore.”

The 61-year-old Adamson is a widely respected professor of philosophy who taught at several eastern schools before coming to Fordham in the 1960s. He traces the genesis of the program he founded back to 1940, when his mother, then 58 and with no children remaining at home, decided to study Russian history at Radliffe. She had no trouble getting admitted to that prestigious institution having graduated from Smith College in 1904, but she received little support for her unorthodox endeavor. Her young classmates asked, What is a woman of her age doing in college, of all places? She felt constrained to drop out after only one semester. Chagrined by his mother’s defeat, Adamson, then a Professor at the University of Connecticut, resolved to do something someday to help older people penetrate the stodgy confines of academe. For inspiration he looked to other, less youth-oriented cultures — particularly the Hindu, where the act of retirement opens doors (including the doors to a new education) instead of shutting them.

Four years ago Adamson founded the College at 60. At first there were only 14 students; today there are 150 and the program is growing. As proof of the program’s increasing prestige, the College at 60 was recently awarded a three-year, $100,000 grant by the Etna McConnell Clark Foundation to develop an outreach program for training the students in such areas as oral history interviewing, preretirement counseling, and running for political office. In addition to directing the College, Adamson also teaches its introductory philosophy course; now, of course, his pupils are also his peers.

Adamson and the rest of the program’s experienced faculty are all veterans of Fordham’s successful and innovative EXCEL program, also based at Lincoln Center, which enrolls 2,200 working adults between the ages of 21 and 50. He and his colleagues know from experience how to help the older adult student negotiate the often difficult passage from workaday to academic life. Most incoming students at the College at 60 haven’t been inside a classroom (except perhaps to visit their children of grandchildren) in decades, and they need help. At the same time, they don’t wish to be patronized. When learning problems arise, they are discussed in a mature manner, with no punches pulled.

Emotional problems, on the other hand — loneliness, age-induced feelings of self-doubt and insecurity — are worked out by the older students in optional, professionally supervised consciousness-raising sessions. “Together we try to reestablish the students’ self-esteem,” says the reverend James Kelly, a young Fordham graduate student who often moderates these intense get-togethers. “Some of the people just entering the program are terribly blocked up. They act as if no one had given them permission to live. What I try to make them realize is that they don’t need anyone’s permission to live.”

These highly personal sessions and seminars both depend for their effectiveness on the participants’ sense of purpose. Most of the students share enthusiasm for learning — for its own sake. Unlike the younger, vocationally oriented people, they are studying not because they have to but because they want to. “It was an exhilarating experience to be among others who had also chosen the course for the sheer pleasure of learning, and not as a prerequisite for improved earnings,” says Victor Ancona, a recent College at 60 graduate.

Participants come to the program from widely diverse backgrounds, creating the kind of ethnic, racial, national, and religious mix possible only in a large city. There are German Jews and southern blacks, retired bankers and retired bank tellers, ex-principles and ex-custodians. Perhaps 25 percent of them already have college degrees; others haven’t even finished high school. But in the humanistically democratic atmosphere, no one is stigmatized.

When I visited Adamson’s philosophy course, I found that the classroom mood was lighthearted — in sharp contrast to the intensity at the consciousness-raising sessions. There is little sense of competition among the students; instead there is a spirit of protective camaraderie. During a provocative discussion of Jesus and his teachings, Adamson wryly asked his 15 students (in spite of a rain heavy enough to deter younger collegians, there were no absentees) whether they would prefer to be loved or respected. “That depends on the time of day,” an alert woman shot back. “I prefer to be respected during the day and loved at night.” There was knowing laughter.

Even though classes can be fun, students must produce. Each course has fairly heavy reading and writing assignments and there are frequent exams. Adamson is a task master, and he may encourage a chronically poor student to withdraw from the program. Indeed, the attrition rate is already a steep 50 percent (although students usually drop out for reasons other than academic difficulty, such as poor finances of poor health).

Those who persevere are rewarded. Upon completion of four seminars, these recycled scholars get diplomalike certificates. They may then transfer to the Liberal Arts College and complete their undergraduate work along with the younger students.

Adamson is careful to point out that this step is optional. “The degree isn’t the important thing,” he says. “The important thing is for our students to become interested in studying again — to wake them up, so to speak — so that they can truly enjoy their leisure years.” In this endeavor, Adamson and his faculty seem to be successful. It is clear to say to any observer that the students are zealously interested in their work. “The students in the College at 60 are some of the brightest — and certainly the most attentive — I have ever taught,” says Eva Stadler, chairman of Fordham’s humanities division, who also teaches a popular course in European literature at the school.

The young dean of the Liberal Arts College, George Shea — who in 1971 gave Adamson permission to start a pilot project for the College at 60 — is particularly pleased. He proudly notes that none of its dozens of graduates now working for their degrees is experiencing serious difficulty. In fact, he reports, they often earn better grades than do the younger students. Perhaps the nicest thing about the College at 60 is that its students have consistently received support from their fellow undergraduates, even while occasionally beating them at their own game. “The other students have been awfully nice to us,” says Shirley Charleston, a former businesswoman and a College at 60 graduate who is now a sophomore in the Liberal Arts College. “They respect the College at 60 — and they respect us too.” She laughs: “I only hope they’re as nice to their parents.”