9 Adults from Film & TV Who Go Back to College

Adults – meaning anyone over the age of 25 – are going back to college in record numbers. There are many reasons to pursue higher education: the satisfaction of completing a degree, switching careers or seeking a promotion or new job in the same field. No matter the motivating reason, it can be nice to know there are non-traditional students out there in the same situation. Fortunately, there are plenty of examples in real life, like the 40% of older adults enrolled in college, and in fiction. Here are some of the characters from Hollywood who went back to college as adults.


1. Harvey Howard – In 1960’s High Time, Bing Crosby played a widower named Harvey Howard who enrolls in college at the age of 51. Unlike most of today’s older college students, Harvey lives in the dorms in his early campus life. The movie follows him through all four years, as he balances classes, fun and even romance (with a professor, something actively discouraged for today’s students). Throughout the story Harvey proves the power of persistence, even ending being named the Valedictorian of his class.


2. Thornton Melon – Back to School came out in 1986 with the wisecracking, self-deprecating Rodney Dangerfield playing Thornton Melon. While some could argue it is barely a movie about the college experience, the story does follow Thornton, a wealthy entrepreneur who bribes his way into college to help his failing son. True to its 80s nature the film centers mostly on hijinx perpetrated by the main character throwing outrageous parties. However, there is a meaningful message Thornton’s father gives near the start of the movie, “if a man has got no education, he has got nothing.”


3. Lorelai Gilmore – In the television series Gilmore Girls (2000-2007), single mom Lorelai Gilmore lives in a sleepy New England town full of eccentric neighbors and deals with her overbearing parents. In the second season, Lorelai (played by Lauren Graham) goes back to school to earn a business degree so she can one day own a bed-and-breakfast. True to life, Gilmore Girls shows the realities of being a single mom, who is managing a bed-and-breakfast and raising her teenage daughter while going to school. Lorelai successfully balances all three, going on to graduate from her program and, eventually, realizes her dream of opening her own inn.


4-7. The Cast of Community – Set at the imaginary Greendale Community College, Community (2009-2005) was a television series that followed the lives of seven students. Four of the show’s main characters were adults returning to school. Jeff Winger (played by Joel McHale) is a lawyer who lied about earning his degree and was forced to go back to school to regain his career. Britta Perry (Gillian Jacobs) is a twenty-something who is returning to school after being an activist and traveling the world. Shirley Bennett (Yvette Nicole Brown) is a single parent who returned to school because she was interested in starting her own business. Pierce Hawthorne (Chevy Chase) is an eccentric millionaire who enrolls in the school out of boredom. The show, known for its unconventional plotlines, often strays from portraying college realistically but does show all of the characters graduating. Pierce passes away shortly after graduating. Jeff becomes an instructor at Greendale after a brief return to law. Britta continues her education, re-enrolling in a psychology program. Shirley successfully runs her own on-campus sandwich shop.


8. Larry Crowne – In the self-titled movie which came out in 2011, Tom Hanks stars as the eponymous main character who enrolls in a local community college after being fired from his job for not having a college degree. Larry’s story will probably seem familiar to most adult college students. While going to school, he has to figure out how to make ends meet, keep up with school work and hold a job in a local diner. However, through it all, Larry perseveres and survives his first year of school.


9. Bobbi Grey – In 2014’s Wild, the story focuses on Cheryl Strayed’s (played by Reese Witherspoon) adventure hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. But, Cheryl spends much of the movie remembering her recently deceased mother who is a great influence on her life. Bobbi had children young and didn’t have the opportunity to attend college but decided to go back when Cheryl enrolled herself. Many adult college students may relate to having their children be their inspiration for going back to school.


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