By Anthony Cotton
This spring, Juanita Valdez expects to graduate from Metropolitan State University of Denver, shortly after completing a student teaching assignment at Denver East High School — the same school that she dropped out of 16 years ago.
Valdez, 32, had a baby at age 18 and worked a number of jobs, trying to make it as a single mother. She got her GED at 21. At times, the thought of continuing her education crossed her mind, but more often than not it would be beaten back by what she thought was her personal reality.
"No one in my family had gone to college. Only a few had barely gotten their high school diplomas or GEDs," she said. "I was accepting my little role in life, saying, 'Oh well, I guess this is where I'm supposed to be.' But the more I thought about it, the more I felt, 'I don't have to be here. I don't have to be doing this.' "
When Valdez made the decision to go to college six years ago, she admitted to feeling overwhelmed with a life of parenting, working and going to school. But in truth, she had become part of what officials say is the fastest growing higher education trend in Colorado — nontraditional students 25 years and older enrolling in college.
Study of trends
In 2011, a state-commissioned study looking at trends in higher education found that over the next 10 years, the number of students attending Colorado colleges and universities could increase by 40,000. Of that number, adult undergraduates 25 years or older without any prior college credits will total more than 23,000, increasing by 27 percent at four-year schools and 16 percent at two-year institutions.
"We can no longer assume that a college student is an 18- to 22-year-old with two middle-income parents who's attending a residential college. That's now the minority," said Matt Gianneschi, Colorado Department of Higher Education deputy executive director. "The majority of students today are nontraditional — in Colorado and across the country,"
Colorado colleges and others across the country are making adjustments to serve the changing needs of students.
A 2012 study by the Institute for a Competitive Workforce, an affiliate of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said Colorado was one of just 13 states to receive a grade of B or better in the area of innovation in online learning. The institute said Colorado stood out for its efforts to promote online learning opportunities, which make course work more accessible to nontraditional students.
Metro State president Stephen Jordan said the 1,000 freshmen students enrolled this fall in the school's student success program, which is designed to help students adjust academically to college, can choose from 40 academic paths tailored to their personal goals and needs. Overall, according to Jordan, one in every four students are using some sort of hybrid schedule, in which they may take one class on campus and another online.
"I think for a lot of our students, school is interspersed with other things that are important to them, like working," he said. "When you have to support yourself to go to school, when you need to have a roof over your head and lights and food, those things are important. They have to be a priority. So we've learned that to help retention, to help with their ultimate success, we had to meet them on their terms."
While Regis University has its main campus where students receive a classic, liberal arts education, over the years it has also expanded to include several commuter/online schools that cater to working adults trying to further their professional development. One, in the Denver Tech Center, is next to a light-rail station.
"They're bringing campuses to the people instead of making people come to the campus," Gianneschi said.
Perhaps the most striking example of how Colorado colleges are innovating is Colorado State University's Global campus, a 100 percent online, regionally accredited program. Started in 2008, Global campus has more than 7,000 students from all over the world, with 45 percent first-generation college students and average age of about 35.
"The audience that we have is looking for that next step — how do I get a good, reputable college degree without having to move to some college town and give up my job," said Lauren Anuskewicz, Global's senior director of marketing. "I'm not interested in football games any more, and I have a family — how do I get to that next level?"
This fall, the school entered into a relationship with Udacity, an online education startup founded by a Stanford University professor, where students could enroll in an introductory computer science class taught by a University of Virginia professor.
When it was initially offered, 94,000 students from around the world signed up for the class, known as a MOOC — Massive Online Open Course. CSU-Global students who take the class receive three transfer credits, which they can apply toward their degree requirements — after they pay $89 to go to a secured testing center and complete a proctored final exam.
"An intro to computer science class was one that we had an interest in from our students, but we didn't feel we would be able to build our own," said Jon Bellum, Global's vice president and provost. "Once we looked at (Udacity's) rigor, we thought maybe there's a better option for us."
"Many more paths"
But while the growth of MOOCs makes some uncomfortable — Jordan envisions problems for potential employers trying to figure out how much weight to give a job candidate's résumé that might include them — Bellum contends they are another way to help the nontraditional student.
"We're in a really disruptive period, and there will be many more paths to higher education than we've seen in the past," he said.
Phil DiStefano, the chancellor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said the school has had discussions about how to wed the traditional with the new wave. One thought, he said, is to offer introductory or core courses online and then bring students to Boulder to complete their degree work.
"I see the online education augmenting what we do traditionally. I don't think it will replace residential universities, it will enhance learning," DiStefano said. "We haven't figured out the financial model for that — it certainly couldn't be free, but there may be a model that would be less than an out-of-state student would pay or something in between a resident or nonresident student."
He said that could mean many more students being served.
Anthony Cotton: 303-954-1292, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/anthonycottondp