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older students in college
Monica Callan with first-year cadets who had just endured the Air Force Academy assault course. Callan has seven years on these 18-year-old cadets, who have nicknamed her “Mom-ica” and who she calls “my kids.” Credit: Thomas Kimmel for The Hechinger Report

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — In her spotless camouflage battle uniform, Monica Callan stood apart from the dirty and exhausted-looking first-year cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy who had just endured nearly three hours of basic training on the academy obstacle course.

As their final test, the cadets from C Flight crawled on their hands and knees while carrying rifles under barbed wire through white sand. Much of it stuck to the sweat and mud in which they were already thoroughly caked, drawing quips from some observing upperclassmen that they resembled sugar cookies.

Callan, looking on, was more supportive. “Good job, Charlie Flight,” she said as each cadet took brief turns under a hose until a whistle signaled it was time to move on. “You’re definitely dirty enough.”

Then she lined them up to trek back to their camp for fresh uniforms and showers.

“Flight, by my command … forward, march!”

There was another thing beside the uniform that made Callan stand out in this pine-scented, sun-filled valley in the Rocky Mountains: She has seven years on these 18-year-old cadets, who have nicknamed her “Mom-ica” and whom she calls “my kids.”

She’s not a member of the faculty, however. She’s not an officer. Callan is a cadet herself, just beginning her final year at the age of 25 and here today to earn a leadership credit. She’s one of a growing number of academy cadets who are starting their higher educations later in life, rather than right out of high school.

About one in 10 of this year’s entering Air Force Academy cadets is older than the traditional age, the academy reports — often returning to school after years of military service, as in Callan’s case. That’s up from about one in 12 four years ago.

It’s an unusual example of a broader trend in higher education, in which the proportion of students who are over 24 has increased from 28 percent in 1970 to about 42 percent today, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

The experiences of Callan and her fellow “priors” — academy lingo for cadets with prior military service — mirror those of older-than-traditional-age adults at civilian universities, and include some of the challenges that are frustrating policymakers’ attempts to get still more of them onto campus.

older students in college
Brian Kelly with younger cadets who have just endured the Air Force Academy assault course. The oldest cadet at the academy, Kelly has civilian relatives who have gone back to school and, unlike him, are also juggling families and jobs. “I can’t fathom how I would deal with that,” he says. Credit: Thomas Kimmel for The Hechinger Report

After a few semesters at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia and two years in the Air Force as a pharmacy technician, Callan found herself poles apart from the 18-year-olds with whom she entered the academy. This despite the fact that fewer than one in eight applicants to the academy gets in, making it more selective than Georgetown and the University of Southern California. More than half of the cadets here graduated in the top 10 percent of their high school classes, the academy says.

“These were kids who just before had gone every day from school maybe to practice, and then somebody made them dinner,” said Callan. “They would stress out about the little things, like, ‘Oh, somebody doesn’t like me.’ I’ve lived life a bit more than them.”

She found herself constantly making excuses to her flight commander as her slower peers struggled with skills she’d already learned. “Sir, I’m waiting on my classmates. Sir, I’m waiting on my classmates,” Callan remembered repeating.

But in the classroom she was rusty, and ended up on academic probation in the first semester. “I was, like, ‘Why don’t I remember what valence electrons are?’ ”

These are just a fraction of the barriers civilian older students face. Many have families and have to pay tuition, for example. (Air Force Academy cadets are not allowed to be married or have kids, and are educated at taxpayers’ expense.)

All these “nontraditional-age” students share unique demands that many traditional higher-education institutions aren’t accustomed to addressing — and that conspire to keep them from enrolling, and staying, in college.

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Once an afterthought, students over 24 have become a critical market for colleges and universities struggling to fill seats due to a dip in the number of 18- to 24-year-olds. Enrollment overall has been falling for five straight years, the National Student Clearinghouse reports.

Institutions “are in financial peril if they don’t attract more students, which means looking at nontraditionals,” said Joe Garcia, a former community college and university president and Colorado lieutenant governor who now heads the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education consortium. “And that’s the same in every state.”

Older students are also needed to help meet a national goal set under the Obama administration of increasing the proportion of the population with degrees to 60 percent by 2025. Progress has been slow, and today the figure stands at less than 46 percent, according to the Lumina Foundation, which tracks it. (Lumina is among the funders of The Hechinger Report, which produced this story.) Forty states have set their own targets.

“The math just does not add up if we rely only on 18-year-olds,” said Emily House, assistant executive director of policy, planning and research at the Higher Education Commission in Tennessee, whose goal is to have 55 percent of residents holding postsecondary credentials by 2025 and which next fall will extend its pioneering free community college policy to students over 24.

older students in college
Alex Williams, who has made nearly 540 jumps himself, trains younger cadets to sky-dive. “I’m like Grandpa in my squadron,” says Williams, who is 25. Credit: Thomas Kimmel for The Hechinger Report

Some 34 million Americans who are 25 and older, or roughly one in six, started college but left before racking up enough credits for degrees,  the last Census in 2010 found, making them prime candidates to come back and help get states like Tennessee across the finish line.

“This is where higher education is going,” said Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson, who stepped down in August after four years as superintendent of the Air Force Academy and under whose watch the proportion of older-than-traditional-age cadets increased.

There’s another reason she encouraged this, said Johnson in her office overlooking the iconic academy chapel: Those students who have already lived some of their lives outside of school bring new perspective to their younger classmates. “We want to get that experience and grit into what we do,” she said.

But other states and institutions, and the federal government, offer little such encouragement for older students, also known as “reentry adults.”

“Our systems have not evolved and adapted to this new demographic very well,” Garcia said. “It takes time, and most institutions would still rather somebody else serve those students so they can continue to serve the full-time traditional-age students, because that’s what they’re used to.”

To qualify for federal financial aid, for instance, students generally have to take at least two courses a semester, which is especially tough for working adults with families. They’re not eligible at all for many state financial aid programs.

Many colleges won’t accept transfer credits that date back years. And the proportion offering on-campus childcare has declined, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research reports, to fewer than half of four-year universities and 44 percent of community colleges.

That’s to say nothing of administrative offices that are open only on weekdays during business hours when many adult students are at work, or tutoring that’s not available at night or on weekends.

Older students often “don’t feel like they’re a part of or belong to the institution that they go to,” said Antonio Quarterman, director of the McCarl Center for Nontraditional Student Success at the University of Pittsburgh, one of the few campuses with an office just for older-than-traditional-age students. The center, named for a trustee who went to school when he was older, stays open late and this fall will begin offering 24-hour tutoring online.

Only 30 percent of military veteran students, who make up a sizeable number of the older adults going back to school, told a Gallup survey they feel strongly that their colleges or universities understand their needs. Among all nontraditional-age graduates, only 14 percent feel connected to their schools, another Gallup poll found.

older students in college
Monica Callan with first-year cadets who had just endured the Air Force Academy assault course. Callan has seven years on these 18-year-old cadets, who have nicknamed her “Mom-ica” and who she calls “my kids.” Credit: Thomas Kimmel for The Hechinger Report

Older students are also more likely to drop out. Nearly half quit before their second year, the National Student Clearinghouse says, compared to about 22 percent of students 20 and under.

And an improving economy means more older students have been opting for jobs over classrooms.

So just when policymakers want to see the long-term trend accelerate, it’s started to slow down. The number of students over 24 in college fell by 3.6 percent in the spring compared to the previous spring, 3.4 percent the year before that, and 3.6 percent the year before that,  the Clearinghouse reports.

Like Tennessee, some states and institutions are working to reverse this.

Indiana’s “You Can. Go Back.” program is using direct mail to reach out to 750,000 residents who started but haven’t finished their degrees, and colleges and universities there are offering scholarships, tuition discounts, flexible class schedules and credit for work and military training and experience.

A Washington state legislator plans to re-file a bill to pay for residents to finish college for free if they dropped out 15 credits or fewer away from a degree. He estimates that includes as many as 25,000 people.

“These are students who have all the downsides of college, like in many cases a lot of debt, without the upside of a credential that will give them a decent job to support their families,” the legislator, state Rep. Drew Hansen, said.

Without them, Hansen said, it’s “science fiction” that the state will meet its goal of having 70 percent of its population holding postsecondary credentials by 2023. “That is fantasy. There’s no path to doing that unless you get adults who are in the workforce back to school.”

The University of Arkansas System is reaching out with emails and text messages to 100,000 students who went to its universities and community colleges over the last seven years but never finished, said Michael Moore, the system’s vice president for academic affairs. That’s out of an estimated 356,000 residents who have some college credits but no degrees, he said, in a state that ranks 45th in the proportion of its population with postsecondary credentials.

Most nontraditional-age Arkansas students are likely to end up at the university system’s year-and-a-half-old online eVersity, which was designed for them, with six-week courses that are a comparatively cheap $495 each and start at any of seven different times per year, said Moore, a former political science professor who heads up these efforts.

Universities and colleges need to recognize their own role in having alienated former students, he said.

“So many people in the adult market simply gave up on the dream,” Moore said. “They had these bad experiences with higher education and they think, ‘Here’s somebody else trying to pitch me to go back to school.’ It takes multiple attempts to cut through the fog of, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ ”

That’s how Brian Kelly felt two days into his education at the Air Force Academy, which he entered after 3 1/2 years as an air-traffic controller. “What are we doing here?” Kelly remembered thinking, along with his fellow priors. Before enrolling, “We were 22 or 23, had a house, had a car, had a dog.”

Now entering his final year and at 25 the oldest cadet (by a few months) on the campus, Kelly has civilian relatives who have gone back to school, and has met civilian older students at leadership conferences he’s attended. Unlike him, many also juggle families and jobs.

“I can’t fathom how I would deal with that,” he said.

older students in college
Brian Kelly, Josh Renick and Monica Callan are among the growing number of cadets starting at the Air Force Academy older than the rest of the 18-year-olds who just graduated high school. Credit: Thomas Kimmel for The Hechinger Report

Alex Williams found himself frustrated, too, when he began as a cadet at what he called “the young but old age of 20” after serving in an Air Force honor guard for two years — including in front of foreign dignitaries and as a pallbearer at military funerals.

Suddenly “cadets right out of high school were ordering me around,” said Williams, on a break from his role as a sky-diving instructor at the academy airfield.

A precast concrete building that looks like a gym, but in which the banners hanging from the ceiling are from parachute-jumping championships, the room where Williams works was filled with young cadets suspended in harnesses and shouting out their checklists. (“I’m like Grandpa in my squadron,” said Williams, who has made nearly 540 jumps himself.)

“We’re getting a different stipend than we were before. If you had a house, you’re coming to a school where you have none of that. And you’re being yelled at. I can only imagine if you had all those other things to deal with.”

Josh Renick arrived at the academy after working in a movie theater and a pharmacy, traveling as a roadie in a band, starting toward a degree in film and TV at a university in Texas and handling munitions at an Air Force base in Italy after accompanying a friend to a recruiting office and spontaneously enlisting.

“I just come with a different perspective from having lived life,” said Renick, now entering his final year at 25. His younger classmates “don’t understand how lucky they are,” he said. “They are still figuring it out at 18.”

Back at the assault course, Callan marched alongside her youthful charges, who managed a rhythmic call and response after their tough morning.

“They say that in the Air Force/ the beds are mighty fine./ How the heck would I know?/ I never sleep in mine,” they shouted.

“Let’s hear another!” commanded Callan as the chant came to an end.

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