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A dream come true: Woman completes college degree at 80

Mary Spencer is photographed at her home on Dec. 29, 2020 in Eden, Utah. Spencer was 19 years old when she dropped out of college. Now, over 61 years later, the 80-year-old has earned her bachelor's degree. In a virtual Brigham Young University-Idaho commencement held earlier this month, Spencer was awarded a Bachelor of Science in marriage and family studies. (Emily Anderson/Standard-Examiner via AP)

EDEN, Utah — Mary Spencer was 19 years old when she dropped out of college. Now, over 61 years later, the 80-year-old has earned her bachelor’s degree.

In a virtual Brigham Young University-Idaho commencement held earlier this month, Spencer was awarded a Bachelor of Science in marriage and family studies.

“I had always wanted to, and I regretted that I had stopped, that I had quit,” she said. “That was a mistake, I felt like. And I liked school. I just thought, well, I’m not dead yet.”

Spencer began attending St. Benedict’s School of Nursing in Ogden in 1959. During her time there, she and her husband decided they wanted to get married. In order to attend the school, however, she was required to live on-site at St. Benedict’s Hospital.

So, she quit.

“I quit, then we got my husband through college, then the kids got through college, then the grandkids got through college, then I decided it was my turn,” Spencer said.

Four years ago, Spencer told her son, Mitch Spencer, that she could either be an 80-year-old without a bachelor’s degree, or go back to school and turn 80 with a bachelor’s degree.

Choosing the latter, the octogenarian enrolled in BYU-Pathway — now BYU-Pathway Worldwide — and started taking online classes toward her degree. Her younger classmates, she said, treated her just like every other member of the class.

“I guess not a lot of people go back to school; they’re not as crazy as I am,” Spencer said, laughing. “I don’t know why everybody though it was different.”

In 2016, when she returned to school, about 16% of college students nationwide were over the age of 35, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Of women seeking a higher education, 18% were older than 35.

The median age of a college student is 26.4, according to a 2017 report from policy think tank New America. At 36, that age is higher among those seeking a degree or certificate through BYU-Pathway Worldwide — a program many with unfinished degrees flock to in an effort to reach the finish line.

Unlike many who work to obtain a higher education, Spencer wasn’t looking to advance her career. She just hoped to learn and check an item off her bucket list — one her son Mitch says is very long.

“It felt good that I had accomplished a goal that I had put off for 60-70 years,” Spencer said. “It just felt so good to complete what I started — to make a goal and finish it.”

“She’s a goal setter and she’s tried to instill that in us,” Mitch Spencer said. He and his siblings organized a celebration for her accomplishment — as much of one as COVID-19 would allow, anyway.

On the day of the commencement, a small group of her family gathered around a computer and watched as her picture flashed on the screen and an announcer read her name with a short bio. Spencer wasn’t disappointed by the ceremony being forced online, she said, because it was similar to two of her grandsons’ graduations in May.

“She’s got great-grandkids now, and I don’t know how much she thought about it, but this is really something inspiring to the great-grandkids that education is important,” Mitch Spencer said.

Next, Spencer hopes to return to writing and volunteer work. She has previously written children’s books and served as a court-appointed advocate for children. She hopes to use her degree in both endeavors.

Spencer said neither her age, nor the COVID-19 pandemic, will slow her down.

“We’re not dead yet. There are still things to do.”

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