Debbie McCardle often pulls out her college diploma to look at it.
There it is, officially on paper: Bachelor of Science from California University of Pennsylvania.
“Sometimes, I just pinch myself and say, ‘Yes, I am a college graduate,’” said McCardle, of Dormont.
Like most college graduates, McCardle is proud of her accomplishment.
But unlike most, McCardle, who collected her diploma from Cal U. in December of 2016, graduated at the age of 64.
McCardle took advantage of Cal U.’s 60 Plus College Advantage Program, which waives tuition for Pennsylvania residents ages 60 and older.
Students are required to pay university fees and purchase required textbooks and supplies, and must have a high school diploma or GED.
Aside from those requirements, CAP provides seniors free tuition, something Barbara Crofcheck, director of the university’s Office of Continuing Education, thinks is invaluable.
“I think it’s a wonderful community service,” said Crofcheck. “Older students have so much to contribute.”
McArdle lost her job as a product coordinator for an engineering firm in April 2015, and during a meeting at the unemployment office, she overheard someone mention CAP.
“I said, ‘Can I get the information for that?’ I went home and called the university, faxed over my driver’s license as proof of my residency, and I was enrolled that day,” recalled McArdle.
The university accepted credits McCardle earned at Point Park University in the 1990s, “before life got in the way of me earning my degree,” she said, and she took classes on campus and online.
Over the past three years, 56 students enrolled in the CAP program, and 30 of those participated in graduate programs, Crofcheck said.
While many seniors take advantage of tuition waivers to pursue undergraduate and masters degrees, many others use the opportunity for personal enrichment through nondegree programs and auditing classes.
Students have taken classes in several majors, ranging from nursing and criminal justice to anthropology.
Currently, 21 senior students are enrolled in spring classes.
Students may take up to 18 credits per semester.
Debra Keefer, executive director of Mon Valley Regional Chamber of Commerce, is working on a bachelor’s degree in communications studies with a concentration in public speaking. She is about 40 credits shy of earning her degree.
Keefer said she was motivated to complete her degree after her husband, Robert Keefer, died in November 2015 after battling a variety of diseases that resulted in multiple kidney transplants and open heart surgery.
“I want my writing and speaking to get better because I have a lot to say. I want to do outreach for organ donation, and I want to share my husband’s story, so I want to be a better communicator,” said Keefer, who earned an associate’s degree from Robert Morris University but didn’t complete an undergraduate degree.
Crofcheck said seniors take classes at the college for many different reasons.
“We have some people who say they’ve always wanted to take some college classes, and they’ve raised their children and have the time. Some have always wanted to earn a degree, and some say it gives them a purpose,” said Crofcheck. “Others say they want to get a graduate degree because they’re still working. It’s a combination of all of those things.”
The older students become a valuable part of the Cal U. student body, said Crofcheck.
“They have life experiences and when they’re mixed in with younger people, the blend makes for a great learning experience,” she said.
For Keefer, who takes classes online and, occasionally, on campus, one of the most rewarding aspects of working on her degree is her interaction with younger classmates.
“I have totally enjoyed it,” said Keefer. “I’m learning from them. That’s the frosting on the cake, learning from these young people. They’re really smart and the have good ideas. I didn’t anticipate that interaction, and it’s fun.”
Now that she has a newly minted bachelor’s degree, McCardle, who works part-time at Giant Eagle, is applying for jobs in her field.
Keefer plans to complete her degree within the next three to four years.
“Getting my bachelor’s degree is a bucket list item, too,” said Keefer. “It would be neat to finally get (the degree) because I put it on hold for so long.”
James Guffey, 63, a retired Ross Township police officer, earned a master’s degree in applied criminology in May 2015.
“It always bothered me. I’ve always wanted to get my masters degree, but when you have a family, you never have the time or the money,” said Guffey, who now works for the North Central Highway Safety Network in Potsville. “When I saw this on the internet, I called Cal U. and said, ‘Is this for real?’ They said yes, it was.”
He completed the masters program online in two years, while working.
“The classes were so rewarding, and the program is outstanding,” said Guffey. “I’m glad I did it.”
For information on the 60 Plus College Advantage Program, visit www.calu.edu/academics/continuing-education/non-degree/cap.