A Phenomenological Study of Adults Earning a Graduate Degree after Age 60

The United States is an aging nation and this trend is predicted to continue. Parallel to a population increasing in number and age, is a broadened interest in lifelong learning. More than ever, older adults are involved in informal and formal education, non-credit and credit-bearing courses; individuals are returning for associates, baccalaureate and graduate degrees. As older adults stay in the workforce longer and delay retirement, certificate and degree programs focused on improving work related skills are expanding. Older adults are also motivated to complete four-year degrees to enhance employment opportunities (Schaefer, 2010). Initiating and completing a graduate degree is a further step in lifelong learning, often based on health, cognitive skills, motivation and perseverance. There is little research describing older students’ perceptions of the value and experience of a graduate degree earned over the age of 60. This phenomenological study examines the perceived value of that graduate degree and ultimately informs future students and institutions of higher learning. It includes interviews of 21 individuals who earned a doctorate or master’s degree after the age of 60. Case vignettes of three individuals are offered to highlight narratives of their educational journeys. Study findings confirmed much of the existing scholarly literature on older adults’ motivations and experiences in graduate education, but there were also some nuanced differences. Continual dedication to lifelong learning through perseverance underscored the motivation for these individuals to complete their graduate degree. Age was never expressed as a constraint by study participants; in fact, years of life and employment experience brought to the cohort was stated as a great advantage. Participants continued employment, sought new careers, pursued writing, making of fine art, or actively volunteered following their graduate degree; few considered themselves retired. Implications for leadership in higher education institutions are also discussed. Leaders in higher education will increasingly recognize this demographic offers more depth of experience to cohort learning than expected. Individuals earning a graduate degree after age 60 provide a wider demographic of learners for institutions of higher education to access, presenting new considerations for intergenerational instruction, and increased opportunities for alumni fundraising.