Unfinished business: More adults go back to college

By Patricia L. Brennan

December 5, 2012

Massachusetts – Amherst’s University Without Walls celebrate their graduation. Kim Moran, 43, has a job in home health care at a hospital in Indianapolis, Ind. After graduating high school in 1987, she paid her way through nursing school by cutting hair. In 1995, she received her registered nurse (RN) certificate from St. Elizabeth School of Nursing in Lafayette, Ind. She’s been able to find steady work, but never completed her bachelor’s degree. Until now.

“I always wanted to go back and finish my BA. What encouraged me to finally do it were my two daughters, who are in college at Indiana University. I wanted to be a good role model for them to show them that it is never too late to finish college,” Moran said.

Moran currently is working on her bachelor’s degree at the University of Indianapolis. She expects to graduate in 2013 and, after that, she plans to enter the school’s master’s program for nurse practitioners.

Moran admits that the transition from the workplace to a classroom of much younger students hasn’t always been easy.

“I’ve had multiple challenges, especially getting back into the math courses. The technology part, too, is tough,” Moran said. “I am taking classes with younger kids who do things much differently. I still take notes; the younger students use iPads to take pictures of the chalkboard. So the challenge isn’t just going back to college, but learning how much college has changed since I was first there.”

Moran’s shares such challenges with a growing number of individuals who are pursuing a college degree or training as an older adult. According to the report “Degrees of Opportunity”, roughly 38% of the 17.6 million undergraduates enrolled in higher education in 2011 were over the age of 25.

There are many reasons adults, or so-called non-traditional students, seek a college degree or credential at a later stage in life. Some are like Moran and just beginning their college journey as an undergraduate. Others are returning to continue what they started as an 18- or 20-year-old student. And some adult learners are heading back to college to pursue additional training as the demand for higher-skilled workers increases.

While their pathway to college may vary, there’s no denying that non-traditional adult students play an important role in both state and national goals to improve college attainment rates. In response, colleges and universities across the country are providing both practical and creative solutions to accommodate the unique learning styles of adult learners. At many institutions, on-campus adult learning centers serve as a one-stop information resource for their adult student population. For instance, the Adult Services Center at Chattanooga State Community College provides personalized advising for admissions, mentoring from current students, seminars and special events to help older adult students combat the isolation that many feel when returning to college after so many years.

Because many adult students must balance family and work obligations in addition to their academic studies, a number of colleges offer customized programs to fit their needs. At the University of Indianapolis, Moran takes advantage of the university’s flexible course scheduling in which classes are held during evening hours, after work. The school also offers degree programs in accelerated formats, as well as provides college credits for certain life and work experiences.

Flexibility is often the carrot that entices adults to pursue or complete their college degree. For a growing number of adult students, this flexibility also is why they prefer to log on to the Internet instead of attending classes on campus. According to a recent report, more that 6.1 million students were taking at least one online course during the fall term in 2010, up more than 500,000 students from the previous year.

One of the leading pioneers in developing higher education support services for adult college students is the University of Massachusetts – Amherst and its University Without Walls (UWW) degree program. Created in 1971 to specifically help non-traditional students complete their bachelor’s degree, UWW enables students to design their own program of study, take 100% online, blended or on-campus courses and earn up to 30 credits for learning they’ve gained through work or life experiences.

More than 600 students enroll in UWW each semester, and the average age of students is 37.

“We’ve had students in the UWW program who are 20 years of age all the way up to 80, proving it’s never too late to finish your college degree,” said Melanie DeSilva, marketing and recruitment manager for UWW.

DeSilva contends that one of the keys to UWW’s success in serving adult students is its high-touch responsiveness and the fact that faculty members — many of whom are non-traditional students themselves — have firsthand experiences with the challenges adult students face in their quest to pursue a college degree.

UWW’s Karen Stevens understands those challenges. She is the first person in her family to not only graduate from college, but also from high school. Today, Stevens serves as the chief undergraduate adviser for the UWW program. She said her past experiences of juggling work and raising a child as a single parent while earning her graduate degrees have given her unique insight into the struggles adult learners often face.

“Many reasons may prevent people from getting their [college] degree in the way they initially planned. I always say that real life happens — from being called into the military, sickness or even losing one’s home. But if these adult students do come back, we are here for them in terms of information, service delivery and faculty support. We’re with them from the moment they begin work on their degree to graduation,” Stevens said.

Personal support resonates with adult college student Marina Ortega. The 46-year-old UWW student describes herself as a “career changer.” Ortega dropped out of college years ago to take a job in sales in Silicon Valley. Her work more than paid the bills, but she said she wanted something more meaningful. Eventually Ortega found her life’s calling in the not-for-profit world.

“That work became the catalyst for me to go back and finish my undergraduate degree. I realized that what got me through my 40s would probably not get me to my 60s in terms of education. I knew I needed my BA in order to go to graduate school to become a physician’s assistant and work with underserved communities,” said Ortega, who was recently accepted into a physician-assistant program in Oregon. “I joined the UWW program, and it’s been phenomenal for me, especially the personal connections with my adviser. That’s made all the difference.”

Patricia Brennan is an Indianapolis-based freelance writer.


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