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The New Normal: Meet America’s Nontraditional Students

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Feature films and TV shows depict college students as young, fresh-faced co-eds right out of high school with few responsibilities. Idyllic movie scenes depict students in their early 20’s frolicking on sunny quads or high-fiving friends at campus parties. These scenes are quite different from actual campuses where the average 21st century college student is older, working at least part-time and typically has family and other responsibilities. Many adult students are also taking courses primarily online or in evening and weekend programs.

“If you Google ‘college student,’ there are no images of people who look like me,” said Frank Jones, a 40-year-old retired veteran. He continued, “But I needed a new start, a change, and I still have a lot of years to dedicate to a new career.” Frank is currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in engineering. He is determined to finish by 2017.

The new majority of college students are likely to be working adults, full-time parents or members of our armed forces. Students may have delayed entry to college or started, but stopped for a while before returning to the classroom. Some students are going vastly part-time for a decade or more while juggling work and family.

By the numbers

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES), 17.7 million undergraduate students are enrolled in degree-granting postsecondary institutions in the United States. Undergraduate students can attend either 4-year institutions that award bachelor’s or higher degrees, or they can attend 2-year institutions that award associate’s degrees and certificates. Students ages 25 and older account for half of the part-time enrollment at public 4-year institutions, two-thirds of the part-time enrollment is at private nonprofit 4-year institutions, and over three-quarters of the part-time enrollment is at private for-profit 4-year institutions. The numbers of adult students at two-year institutions are also high.

A worthwhile pursuit

Just five years ago, Mary Simmons of Carol Stream, Illinois was unemployed after a long career in real estate and title insurance. She was the sole financial support for her family of five children, two grandchildren and a husband on disability. Mary decided to take a couple of classes at her local community college while continuing her job search. Mary’s husband began to take classes with her, and by 2012, the two of them graduated with bachelor’s degrees. 

Mary was 50-years-old at the time and earned a BA in Elementary Education. Mary’s husband was 54 and now has a BA in Secondary History Education. Currently, Mary’s husband is a first-year teacher with the Clark County School District in Las Vegas, and Mary is on track to complete her master’s degree at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV). Her focus is Teaching English as a Second Language. These two are examples of what is possible for adult college students.

The barriers may be more pronounced for the older college student who is juggling work, family and health issues, but they are anything but insurmountable. College is attainable at any age and stage in life.

Kim Nehls, Ph.D., [email protected]

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