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Universities that are recruiting older students often leave them floundering

These characteristics add extra challenges to the already stressful experience of college. The biggest is balancing work and school, one survey of older-than-traditional-age community college students found. Then comes paying expenses and meeting the demands of family, the survey, by the consulting firm Percontor, showed. There are also frustrations about such things as parking, registering for courses and dealing with faculty the students don’t think care about them, don’t respond to emails or aren’t available outside of class.

Meanwhile, colleges have collectively reduced, not increased, the availability of campus child care; the average campus daycare center has a waiting list of 80 children.

Then come less visible headaches. Souza worries about limits on absences, for instance, because “between me and my three kids it’s inevitable somebody is going to be sick.” She’s also sensitive to the differences between herself and younger classmates, most of whom weren’t born when she earned her first college credits in 1999, while she was still in high school, before having her first child at 17 and putting her education on hold.

Danielle Ridgeway, a 36-year-old mother of two, is a business major at Portland State University. She was “a little hesitant, definitely,” to come back. “I don’t want to waste any more money. I don’t want to waste any more time.”

Danielle Ridgeway, a 36-year-old mother of two, is a business major at Portland State University. She was “a little hesitant, definitely,” to come back. “I don’t want to waste any more money. I don’t want to waste any more time.”

“The sense that you’re an outsider and that you don’t belong can be really strong,” said Souza.

Many Americans for whom these impediments await are already reluctant to go back to college after having had bad experiences the first time. “It may have taken them years to build up the confidence to try again. If they end up enrolling at a place that does not have structures in place to serve who they are at this point in life, the adult student is going to feel again like they’ve somehow failed — that, ‘I’ve not been able to make this work and it’s my fault,’” said Klein-Collins, author of “Never Too Late: The Adult Student’s Guide to College.”

“It’s not their fault. The problem is that they chose the wrong institution.”

Danielle Ridgeway, a 36-year-old student in the business school at Portland State, started at 18 but “didn’t get a whole lot of support from advisors. I kind of got lost in the system, changed majors four times, just trying to figure out what I wanted to do [and] took a lot of courses I didn’t need.” After five years, she said, she still didn’t even have enough of the right credits to get an associate degree.

She was “a little hesitant, definitely,” to come back, said Ridgeway. “I don’t want to waste any more money. I don’t want to waste any more time. I just wanted to get the degree I want in an appropriate amount of time.”

Now she balances her courses with raising two children, 5 and 9, and working full-time as marketing manager for a construction company.

Zac Mckinster, 28, a Navy veteran and new father, is double-majoring in finance and quantitative economics at Portland State. “You’d think it could be simpler,” he says.

Zac Mckinster, 28, a Navy veteran and new father, is double-majoring in finance and quantitative economics at Portland State. “You’d think it could be simpler,” he says.

Often, Ridgeway said, “I’m just counting down: ‘Okay, we’re at week four, we’ve got seven more to go” in Portland State’s 11-week quarters. “If I can make it this 11 weeks, I can make it the next 11 weeks.” There have been “a lot of tears. A lot of meltdowns.” Especially when her children ask her, “‘Do you have to do homework tonight? Can’t we just go play?’”

She also encounters other, less poignant reminders that she’s older than her classmates.

In her study group, she said, “I’m taking notes and they’re, like, ‘Where are you taking notes?’ ‘On a piece of paper.’ ‘Why aren’t you typing them out on a Google doc?’ ‘Because I’m old school and I like to write it out.’” As the oldest member of the business school’s Future Leaders Group, she said, “Sometimes it is a little bit harder to relate as they’re talking about the things that are going on in their life. I’m, like, ‘Yeah, well, I have a job and bills. I have kids, I can’t just go to all of the social events you kids are doing.’ It does get a little hard and you do kind of feel like an outsider.”

Another problem also stops many older students from finally getting all the way through college: paying for it. State financial aid is often not available to people over a certain age or past a certain number of years after graduating from high school. Federal Pell Grants are limited to the equivalent of six years. Once veterans begin cashing in their GI Bill benefits, they’re good for 36 months of education.

Even though he’s taken more than the usual number of courses each semester and gets an extra year of GI Bill benefits because of a disability — hearing loss from when he worked on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier — “I’m going to be right up against my deadline,” said Zac Mckinster, 28, a Navy veteran double-majoring in finance and quantitative economics at Portland State. “There’s not a whole lot of wiggle room.”

These constraints are made worse for older students who try to transfer credits they’ve already earned and paid for; more than 40 percent of previous academic credits aren’t accepted, according to the Government Accountability Office, and some of those that are don’t count toward students’ majors. This means students have to take the same subjects again, while their eligibility for financial aid trickles away.

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Last Updated on April 13, 2020

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