At Grand Valley State University on the banks of Michigan’s Grand River in 2014, septuagenarian Michael Nicholson graduated with a master’s degree. But far from being the crowning achievement of a late bloomer, the Kalamazoo resident’s triumph marked the pinnacle of a staggering academic career. For more than half a century, Nicholson had been a student in higher education, amassing some 30 degrees in total. He learned a lot along the way, and the retiree is more than happy to share some knowledge with those setting out on an academic path.
In the early 1960s, when 77-year-old Nicholson was first starting further education, attending college was not as common for Americans as it is today. But fast forward to 2018, and U.S. Government figures show that about 40 percent of the country’s youth are in higher education. Indeed, even though many believe that the jobs market is becoming saturated by overqualified graduates, some 20 million university students will commence their educational careers in the States.
For most of these learners, college will be a relatively brief experience. After earning a bachelor’s degree, the majority of graduates will leave academia to find their way in the outside world. And although some dedicated individuals will stay on in education to study for master’s and even Ph.D.-level qualifications, few modern academic careers last longer than a handful of years.
However, there are some people with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge who never seem to tire of being in school. Dubbed “perpetual students,” these individuals develop an obsession with the learning process, remaining in education for far longer than would be deemed necessary by most. And even though there is a fair scattering of notable examples to be found around the world, Nicholson – it has to be said – is one of the most extreme.
A native of Michigan, and born to a mother with just a high-school diploma and a father who dropped out in third grade, Nicholson’s first foray into higher education involved a stint at Detroit’s William Tyndale College. He began studying for a bachelor’s degree in religious education at the Christian institution, and he graduated with a major in General Bible studies in 1963.
Nevertheless, Nicholson was also learning lessons in love and met his future wife, Sharon, at the college. But even the excitement of young romance could not distract him from his quest for knowledge. While Sharon continued her studies in Detroit, Nicholson traveled more than 1,000 miles south to Texas, where he began attending the Dallas Theological Seminary.
Four years after his first B.A. the Michigan man picked up a master’s degree in theology in the Lone Star State. With the benefit of hindsight, Nicholson later pointed to this first time away from his home state as being his introduction to the realities of student life. Finally out in the world alone, the second-time-around student felt compelled to prove himself by fulfilling his academic potential to the fullest extent. Fortunately, Nicholson thrived under the pressure and had his master’s to prove it.
In 2016, he was able to look back at his Dallas years in an article published by the online magazine Vice. “I had to produce good work to be able to go home with some self-respect,” Nicholson noted of his time at the seminary. “That meant I couldn’t leave my assignments to the night before. If I had to write a term paper, I had to start three weeks in advance. It made a student out of me.”
But despite his dedication, Nicholson was not immune to the pitfalls that still trouble students today. For example, he did not see eye-to-eye with his Texas roommate, who the Michigan native found to be overly emotional. Nevertheless, in another life lesson, Nicholson soon realized that he could learn from the older, more experienced man – despite their personal differences.
And, by the time that Nicholson graduated from Dallas Theological Seminary in 1967, he himself was a more experienced man. He had married Sharon on a trip back home before embarking on his final year. But unlike many of his peers, Nicholson did not choose to settle into an ordinary career as a husband after his master’s. Instead, he embarked on a lifelong academic journey that would see him earn a staggering number of qualifications over the years.
After Dallas, Nicholson headed north again to Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, near Detroit, where he studied for another master’s, specializing in teaching. Having graduated in 1970, he then spent time in Ottawa, Canada, learning how to be a school counsellor. After becoming a Master in Education in 1974, he relocated to Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, where he focused on educational leadership and business administration.
Nicholson rounded off the 1970s at Western Michigan, accruing three more degrees, and in 1980 Sharon and he settled in Kalamazoo. This was handy for a degree course at the city’s community college followed by another at a sister site in nearby Lansing. So Nicholson spent the majority of the ’80s gaining qualifications in law enforcement and management. The next decade saw the 50-something student notching up M.A.s at the Eastern and Western Michigan universities at the rate of almost one a year. As the 21st century loomed, Nicholson was tempted across the state line to attend Indiana University in South Bend. He earned the first of three master’s degrees in education from that institution in 2001 with his second two years later and a third the year after that.
There was no let up for the rest of that decade, with Nicholson enrolling at his home state’s Grand Valley State University in Allendale for four more master’s awards. By 2010, when he graduated for the 29th time, Nicholson had studied everything from human resources to psychology and economics. And perhaps the latter subject explains the amazing fact that, despite being in further education for half a decade, Nicholson has avoided getting into thousands of dollars of student debt. In fact, he has always worked alongside his academic endeavors, ever since he funded his first B.A. by delivering newspapers around Detroit.
Indeed, Nicholson had found himself in many varied jobs down the years, including teaching positions and factory work, in order to pay for his continuing education. And even though he recognizes that it is much harder to fund student life in the 21st century, nevertheless, Nicholson has plenty of advice for those just embarking on an academic career.
And he said as much in his Vice article. “It doesn’t really matter what you study,” Nicholson admitted. “But you should study something that truly interests you. Otherwise, you’ll probably drop it along the way.” Moreover, he stressed that the degree itself is more important than whatever the major may be, as the over-all qualification can open up paths to other careers.
Furthermore, Nicholson also emphasized the importance of a student listening to their professors – even if they have conflicting views. Bizarrely, he cited a project of his own, which he undertook for degree number 30, as an example of this. Studying for a master’s in criminal justice, Nicholson focussed on ministries inside prisons. Controversially, however, he ended up presenting an alternative view of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. According to Nicholson’s research, the president’s real killer is apparently still alive and well and living as a reformed Christian in jail.
Apparently, Nicholson was able to get his contentious paper signed off, even though none of his academic supervisors agreed with the version of events that the project presented. “If you tell the professor, ‘Here is my view, and here is the evidence’ – and I always had some evidence to show [them] – you can at least discuss it,” Nicholson explained. “That’s how I go about dealing with professors.
Additionally, Nicholson talked up the importance of learning from other students as well as staff. However, he admitted that his classmates have changed a lot over the years. Specifically, Nicholson laments that dress codes have grown far more relaxed, and that his peers often distract themselves in class by eating and messing around on computers.
By 2012, news of Nicholson’s amazing academic career had begun to reach the media, and the septuagenarian found himself under a press spotlight. Eagerly, he told interviewers that he hoped to earn as many as 34 degrees. However, after successfully earning his master’s in criminal justice from Grand Valley in 2014, Nicholson’s doctor advised him to slow things down.
So, in total, Nicholson earned 30 degrees, including one bachelor’s, two associate degrees, three specialist qualifications and an incredible 23 master’s degrees. Additionally, he also has a doctorate in education. And, according to Nicholson, it is only his aging body that is preventing him from getting more. “Stay in school,” he advised those lucky enough to be able to. “Stay in for as long as you can.”