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Adult Students Embracing College

When people think of college students, they often think of students under the age of 21, but the reality is that an increasing number of older, non-traditional students are going to college. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that adults ages 30-34 have increased enrollment in colleges from four percent in 1970 to seven percent in 2008. Locally, according to statistics from Northern Arizona University, in the Fall of 2009, 23 percent of the undergraduate students were over 25 while 88 percent of the graduate students were over 25.

Not be forgotten, however, are students who fall within the 30-59 age group and those who are over 60. According to the American Association of Community Colleges Plus 50 initiative (created in 2008 to assist older students), classes geared toward older students have grown from 50 to over 1,000 courses in 2011. Many of those courses for the Plus 50 student focus on computer skills, social media, Microsoft Office and desktop publishing.

Locally, at Coconino Community College (CCC), 27 percent of students are over the age of 30. Vice President of Academic Affairs Russ Rothamer says that many of the courses offered at Coconino Community College are for retraining and upgrading skills, and that CCC continues to work to find innovative ways to reach the students in the community. For example, he said there is a program called “Fast Fridays” that offers classes once a week to meet the needs of the working adult.

At Northern Arizona University in 2011, there were 5,544 students in the 30-59 year old range. Dr. Fred Hurst, vice president extended campuses, dean of online instruction, says the average age of students enrolled in the 36 locations throughout their Extended Campuses is 33. The focus of the Extended Campus program is the adult student, and soon, according to Hurst, a new program designed for “personalized learning” will be available to attract even more adult students.

Shannon Clark is an adult student in the process of completing her M.A. in the Community Counseling program at NAU. Shannon is 48 years old and previously practiced family law as an attorney. She gave up her law practice when her son was two, and although she loved being an attorney, she spent the next few years being a full-time mother to two children and doing volunteer work with the schools and juvenile court.

“I loved working most with clients in crisis,” said Clark. So, as her children grew older, she started exploring other career options. She took a Community Counseling class and loved it and decided to reenter college – as a graduate student. She said she started out slow, first taking one class and then two and then eventually four. “Balancing being a mother and wife and taking night classes was the most challenging part,” she said.

Karen Flores, 52, currently works for Northern Arizona Extended Campus program in Tucson, and just completed a M.Ed. in Human Relations this summer. She has always been a non-traditional student. “I started my undergraduate degree in Secondary Education (history/social studies) in 2001 at the age of 41 and finished in 2006,” Flores said. She felt the Extended Campus program through NAU worked well for a working mother of four. She said the combination of online and local in-person classes worked best for her. “Students used to go to college,” said Flores. “Now college goes to the student on his or her terms.”

Hurst says NAU’s Extended Campus program continues to grow throughout Arizona and they are looking ahead to the new program they hope to launch in January, funded by the Gates Foundation. About a year and a half ago, he says the enrollment for Extended Campuses hit a plateau and he and his staff needed to figure out what happened and what was needed to continue to grow and meet the needs of the adult learner. Hurst notes that adult learning is an ever-changing field, shaped by the economy and the changing culture of technology.

Clark is now doing an internship at Counseling Services at Northern Arizona University. She is excited about her new career path and says there were many non-traditional students in her graduate classes. She says some of the technology was a bit scary, but “everyone in class was so helpful” and the younger students and her daughter helped her whenever she needed help with technology.

Flores agrees. “Many resources are available to assist you,” she said. She feels her life experiences were a definite advantage in the classroom and that she, too, learned many things from her younger classmates. She feels that her recent degree has greatly expanded her employment options.

With the average retirement age now at 67 and likely to increase, it seems that more and more adult students will be returning to college to build their skills and find new career paths. FBN


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