Kristie Kolesnikov, 30, spent 10 years getting her bachelor’s degrees at six different institutions while raising a son — she now also has a 19-month-old — and doesn’t even know how many credits she lost every time she changed majors or transferred. “That’s a bummer,” said Kolesnikov, now working on her master’s in public administration at Portland State. “And that’s what happens.”
Not surprisingly, older students often give up. Of those who enroll at the age of 24 or over, nearly half drop out within six years, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reports. Even at Portland State, the proportion of students who finish in six years is 47 percent compared to the national average of 58 percent.
“We’re missing the real problem, which is we have to put a system in place so students can actually graduate,” said John Mullane, a counselor at a Connecticut community college and president of College Transfer Solutions. “We need fundamental change on our campuses and we’re not getting that.”
That’s not only bad for students; it hurts universities that need more of them, and the revenue they bring, said Yohlunda Mosley, Portland State’s assistant vice president for enrollment management.
“If a student comes to a campus and they’re not retained, and they leave that campus with debt,” said Mosley, “how do you then go back into that community and recruit more?”
This is among the reasons Portland State, which was established in 1946 to serve veterans, has added such supports as a program under which students who have attended other institutions can learn, before they enroll, whether their credits will transfer. In addition to its walk-in and reserved-space child care centers, it has family-friendly study rooms with toys, books (“The Toddler's Busy Book,” “I Love Dirt!”), diapers and baby wipes along with coffee and computer terminals for parents. Recent student body presidents have included a mother of two and a 32-year-old former Army combat medic.
Even here, there are limitations. Campus offices aren’t open in the evenings or on weekends, for example. Academic credit is available for relevant professional and personal experience, but not until after students are enrolled and have completed at least one course, and there is typically a test required and a fee charged that can’t be covered by financial aid. As at many large universities, there’s not a single central source of information for older students — though one is under consideration.
“If they don’t happen to go into Financial Aid when they’re running out of financial aid, they’re just, like, ‘Oh, I’m out of financial aid I guess I have to quit,’” said Lisa Wittorff, director of services for students with children. “They don’t know what services might happen to be available.”
Like college students of all descriptions, those who are older than the traditional age are baffled by the general complexity of higher education. “You’d think it could be simpler,” said Mckinster, a new father. For people like him, that adds “a ton of stress,” he said.
Kolesnikov knows people mean well when they ask her, “How do you do it all?” she said. “A better response to somebody is, ‘How can I further support you?’”
A few other institutions are offering answers to that question. St. Clair County Community College in Michigan has a special fund to cover such emergency expenses for its older students as rent payments, car repairs and babysitting. Wayne State University forgives past-due balances of $1,500 or less, of former students who didn’t graduate and want to come back. Kent State University has a designated Center for Adult and Veteran Services, which helps process benefits, coordinates campus services and brings together older learners who have more in common with each other than with younger classmates.
Fordham runs a dedicated School of Professional and Continuing Studies for older undergraduates, with evening, weekend and online classes and up to 75 transfer credits offered and as many as 30 for prior personal and professional experience. California State University Long Beach offers a bachelor of arts in the liberal arts for working adults, with both in-person and online classes, and its student government includes a representative for parents and pregnant students and another for veterans.
Universities that want to enroll these students, have to provide at least a minimum of help, Klein-Collins said. “Just the basics are classes in the evening or blended options where you can do some online on your own time. Then you’ve got other things, like rolling term starts, so you don’t just offer a program that starts in September and January, but you can start at different times of the year.”
She said she counsels older students that, “If an institution is not providing a certain level of service for you or making it easy for you to fit them into your busy life, then keep looking. Not every institution has really figured that piece out yet, and I don’t know if they’re willing to change.”
There are other signs of movement. Before 2017, increasingly popular free-college programs universally excluded older students. Starting in the fall, Tennessee made them eligible for free community college, with some restrictions, and five other states are now working on doing the same thing, according to the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. Also in the fall, Idaho began to offer a $3,500-a-year scholarship for adult learners returning to school to finish their degrees.
But universities in general “are not responding with these kinds of strategies” — despite the fact that most enrollment growth is projected to be among older, online and graduate students — said Tim Culver, vice president in charge of retention services at the consulting firm Ruffalo Noel Levitz.
“What they’re trying to do is attract the adult student with the same program they provide to the traditional student. And the message [these students] are getting is, ‘We would like to have you but we want you to conform to the traditional product. We want you to buy the same product the traditional-age students are buying.’”
As an older student with kids, Jade Souza hears another message.
When well-intentioned people tell her that she must be superhuman to juggle so much in her life, she said, “It’s really heartbreaking” to her. “Because I know everything has a cost. And this idea that [student parents] are superhuman is not true.”
Said Souza: “People’s grades are suffering or their work is suffering or their kids are suffering. I would like to see it not that way — that students could do what’s more within the range of human limits of time and space.”
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Last Updated on April 13, 2020
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