What's up with perpetual students?

There always seems to be a small subculture of university/college students who are well beyond typical student age (even elderly sometimes) but have been well entrenched at the institution for years.

How do they support themselves - do they need a wealthy benefactor? Or do they work teaching assistant type jobs to cancel out tuition? Or just go further into debt?

Also, is being a perpetual student a bit of a pathology, or “nice gig if you can get it”?

If I had money or access to funding for school, I’d be a perpetual student. I love learning and since most perpetuals don’t worry about getting yet another degree, you can just take what interests you. A life of the mind, what could be better?

They fight for their support from semester to semester, usually. They cobble together TA-ships, grants, fellowships, part-time job wages, and credit card debt.

Yes, I always thought it was … not a pathology, exactly, but a distinct mindset. One thing is that being a TA or living on a fellowship is not plush living at all. In my time it was just enough to rent a cheap apartment in the student ghetto and live on cheap, basic food. But these people don’t mind that. They’re pretty happy just to exist, without ambition to do more in life.

One fine point is that the perpetual student is not the same as a person who’s having a hard time finishing a PhD. Some advisors are just asses, and make their students take forever to finish. These students can appear to be perpetual when in fact they’re just so entrenched with their dissertation and advisor that it makes more sense to trudge ahead than to get out and do something else.

Elderly people you see in college classes are likely retired and taking a class or two a semester for fun and self-improvement. It’s common for colleges to have a program available for non-degree seeking people from the community to take classes for relatively little.

There are also people doing a degree part-time because they’re working or have family obligations. If you can’t ever take a full load of classes then it’s going to take longer than four years to graduate.

I’m in academia, and while I know of students whose bad grades or bad decisions have required them to spend an extra year or two on getting their degree I’m not aware of any subculture of full-time, degree-seeking undergraduates who linger for years and years and have never personally encountered such a person. I’ve heard of a few perpetual students, but only because they’re rare enough to be considered newsworthy – I remember seeing Johnny Lechner interviewed on Letterman.

As Sattua said, there are Ph.D. candidates who take many years to complete their dissertations, but this usually seems to be because they’re struggling with some sort of problem with their advisor or their research and not because they don’t want to finish the damn thing.

Or, working just hard enough to keep getting paid as research assistant, but not hard enough to actually finish the thesis. (Been there, done that.)

Inn the 1950s, I went to a land grant universitiy, which were required to make two years of ROTC a requirement for all male students under the age of 30. One pacifist student refused to participate, and in 12 years took almost every course in the catalog, but was denied any degrees he had earned until his 30th birthday. He then went on to become a highly successful petroleum engineer and cattle rancher.

Possibly not exactly the same as what the OP is asking about, but a friend of mine is 40, and has been in school, more or less continually, since he was 18 (and at the same university the entire time). Part of it has been that he’s changed majors repeatedly, and part is that he’s not been a full-time student for a number of years.

He’s worked in the security department at the university for at least the past decade, which has helped him pay for his tuition. He’s finally in his last semester of his Master’s program, and might actually be finished with school this year. :smiley:

I once knew some of those folks. They told me that as long as they stayed in school, they could get “student loans” which would enable them to stay in school for as long as they wanted.

The one thing they all had in common was that they were highly successful in meeting and bedding members of the opposite gender and they were very, very happy to live a life full of orgasms.

I must say, in truth, I envied those people (a lot) because I was never very successful in that sphere of life until I graduated and got a job and a book about how to meet members of the opposite gender and how to appear attractive to them. Believe it or not, the single biggest tip that book contained was to bathe often and keep clean (both my body and my apartment) and to avoid smelling bad. That seemed to help a whole heck of a lot. In fact, it was amazing to learn just how much it helped.

Oh well. Boo Hoo! What can you do?

Thanks for the responses, that does paint a better picture.

To clarify, I haven’t seen an perpetual undergrad either and I’d concur they’re probably not very common. The perpetual students I’ve encountered existed in the grad school environment - typically bouncing from one graduate program to the next and figuring out a way to cozy up to the department heads somehow.

An old college friend of mine, age 61, just got done with college. Now has a intern position. Trust-fund.
When I retire I plan to take some courses at the university near me. Like so many things, college is fun if you don’t expect any measureable result.

I was a perpetual part-time undergrad. Full-time semi-normal student for 5 years, then got a full-time job and kept going part-time for another 8 years, accomplishing absolutely jack shit :D. Far as I know I was unique in the departments ( biology and history ) I hung out in.

Why? I could and it entertained me. I went to a state school back when they were cheapish, I had modest tuition reimbursement through my job and made enough to easily pay for it anyway. I just enjoyed the social milieu ( when I was working graveyard shift for years at the time ) and learning stuff - it was a hobby. I did have some vague ideas of actually accomplishing something, but I never pursued them very hard and wasn’t terribly disappointed that I didn’t.

So I kept going until I lost interest in it as a hobby. Then I stopped. Though it took some inconvenient happenstance to finally propel me to end it. Anyway no regrets on my end.

One of my college roommates was in his 8th full-time undergrad year at his 3rd mainstream university. He was on track to graduate in year 11 if he kept working along the degree path he was then on.

When I graduated in my year 4, he was in his year 10 actively scheming on how to change majors in the least productive manner possible, ideally with a transfer to another school thereby sloughing off a bunch of credits along the way.

This was in California where the UC system runs on quarters and the rest of the private and Cal-State college system is on semesters. You could easily lose 20% of your credits transitioning between systems in either direction. Which he did each time. Sheer genius. And this was in the days of cheap tuition, 2% student loans with indefinite deferrals until graduation while inflation was 4+%/year. Food and lodging was by far the most expensive part of attending university.

His goal was to simply avoid joining what he called “real life”. He was good at getting Bs with little work. It was the ideal job for him: barely 30 hours a week of face time, some light reading, and no boss on his ass. All while being surrounded by 18-22yo girls. That wasn’t his prime objective, but it was a nice fringe bennie. He hadn’t yet aged out to the creepy-old-man stage; mostly the women seemed to look at him as older and a bit more mature than the run-of-mill sophomore drunk man-child.

Eventually his parents cut off the gravy train. Last I saw him was 3 years after my graduation. He was then a student at the local junior college, living in a student ghetto apartment nearby, and operating on student loans and a part time job at the college. He had just turned 31.

That’d be me. I’ve been taking classes at the local community college for the last 15 years. I got my M.A. in 1977.

Teachers appreciate us old fart students because we show up, don’t cut, do our homework, participate in discussions, have interesting things to say, know how to make eye contact, and don’t sit staring at our phones during class.
BTW, in the last 15 years I have seen an alarming deterioration in the general knowledge and civility of students of traditional college age (18-22).

That was me in my twenties. I was requested not to return to the university I was attending middle of my junior year, so I changed states and opened a few businesses. While doing that, I enrolled in the local state uni and community colleges and took random night classes as they occurred to me, both to keep interested and to meet girls. By the time I returned to California and got serious about a career, I had amassed quite a little pile of credits in lots of different departments. When I went back to school for good, I dumped my transcripts on my advisors desk and said “What am I closest to?” That’s why my BA is in Liberal Studies (Major in Anthropology, dual minors in Sociology and European History.) Dean’s List every semester, too, both undergrad and grad. Sometimes people just aren’t ready for college when they first get there.

I have a friend who collects degrees. MLS, MFA, MS, PhD, maybe something else, and she’s working on another doctorate.

Partially, it’s that she enjoys school, partially I think its that she’s always had physical limitations that her siblings don’t and this is a way she proves that she can be as much as them and finally, I think it’s that if she stays in school at least half time she doesn’t have to pay student loans, of which she has many, I assume.

ETA: at the same time, she does have a full time job, so school isn’t all she does.

I did undergrad 1967-1971.

One of the brightest people I met had a pat answer to the “What do you want to be when you grow up?” question:
“Professional Student”.
She had the smarts to score grants and scholarships.

On a whim, I looked her up while passing through the town where I had last seen her in 1974.
This was in 1991.
She was about to complete her PhD. She was also about to turn 40.

It seems her luck ran out at that point.
The bad luck also ran out.
She died in 2001, age 50.

That would be my ex-husband. Just didn’t *want *to finish the damn thing, that is. I think the closer he got to completion, the more he realized that a PhD in Performance Studies was not the golden ticket to a Real Career he’d somehow envisioned it would be. So he just didn’t finish. He still talked as if he was actively writing it, but I knew better.

He finally finished it and got approval, literally on the last day of eligibility - after which he would have had to enroll in additional classroom hours. 10 years. He outlived two advisors in the process.

So you needed to pay money for a book that told you to make sure you shower often enough not to stink? So how often did you bathe prior to getting this game-changer?

Could you clarify this?

From what I’ve seen with the high cost of college, those going into it are more focused on getting good grades and getting out asap.

Heh! Heh! Heh!

Somehow, when you say this, it sure does sound stupid. But please let me point out a few facts:

There is a big difference between the mindset of a 17 year old male and an adult male on account of things like hormones and the recent onset of puberty.

But there is a much bigger difference - a **huge **difference between young men and a young ladies.

Things that seem so obviously important to ladies (things like cleanliness and avoiding smelling bad) just may not seem that obvious to very young males. I know that doesn’t sound reasonable. But many young men who have recently emerged from puberty are just beginning to realize the importance of cleanliness and good grooming and the avoidance of smelling bad. Things that seem so obvious to young ladies - they don’t even need a second thought - are far less obvious to many young men.

I know that probably does not sound very reasonable to you. But there is a huge difference between the mindset of young men and young ladies. I’m ashamed to admit that is true. But it surely is true. Not for all young men. But for many of them.

I’m ashamed to admit this. But many young men can be real cretins until they have learned a few good lessons in the School of Hard Knocks.