More and more nontraditional, older students are returning to college, but they may never be seen on a four-year university campus.
These students are hitting the books after long absences to retrain themselves and acquire new skills to find a job following, for many, bouts of unemployment.
“This is the continuing education I should have done the first time,” said Liz Windham, a 30-year-old originally from Merced, Calif. who is planning to become a veterinary technician.
In recent years there has been an increase in the percentage of students over 25, like Windham, returning to school, and this is likely to continue, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).
After working for a number of years as an independent contractor for the U.S. Navy in San Diego, Windham found herself unemployed.
Windham’s degree in British literature from the University of California – Santa Cruz did little to help her find employment, and money problems forced her to move back in with her parents.
“I need a skill set to get a job, especially in this economy,” said Windham.
Though older students have taken a break from higher education for some time, they have the life experience to make the education system work for them, said Joanna Zimring Towne, director of the Career Center at Los Angeles Pierce College.
“They’re here because they actually want to be,” said Zimring Towne. “Older students do better than their younger counterparts.”
Like Pierce, many community colleges across the nation are coping with a higher demand for their services at a time when their budgets are being cut.
“In some ways it’s actually a really horrible time to come back to school because we’re not equipped to handle the increased demand,” said Zimring Towne. “Our support systems have been greatly reduced.”
The California Community College’s budget was cut $502 million during 2011, according to their website.
Due to the funding cuts, the average time it takes for a transfer student to complete their units has increased from two to three years, said Zimring Towne.
Enrollment of students under 25 increased by 27% between 2000 and 2009 and increased 43% in those over 25, according to the 2010 Digest of Education Statistics, which is prepared by the NCES. In it, the NCES anticipated a rise of 9% in enrollment of students under 25, and an increase of 23% for students 25 and over between 2010 and 2019.
There has also been an increase in demand at the four-year university level, which means increased pressure on community colleges as well.
Most older college students, however, will never transfer to a four-year university — primarily because that is not their goal.
“Their main purpose is to get a job,” said Mike Kelly, dean for workforce education at Grays Harbor Community College in Aberdeen, Wash., where the average student age is 26 and 28% of the students are unemployed.
“When there’s not much work people go to school,” said Kelly.
Job training classes fill up quicker than other classes at community colleges like Bakersfield College in Bakersfield, Calif. said Amber Chiang, director of marketing and public relations.
Slashed funding and an increase in student numbers means those working to put themselves through school are at a disadvantage because they have fewer classes to choose from.
“It’s hard to meet the needs of any students at this point,” said Chiang. “We’ve aged a few percentage points in the past couple of years.”
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