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A mother of two, Amy Nalesnik felt her heart drop when she learned the campus day care center she had hoped would watch her kids all day was being evicted.
Finding an alternative presented yet another obstacle for the former hairdresser in her quest to get a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education from the University of Alaska at Anchorage, which sent the day care center packing because of budget cuts.
“That was a bummer,” said Nalesnik, who is 29 and now pregnant with her third child, and whose mother watches her children while she’s in class. “I always thought it would be really great to bring my kids to campus and have them in the same building where I was.”
Forty percent of U.S. university and college undergraduate and graduate students are, like Nalesnik, 25 and older, according to U.S. Education Department data. Even among undergraduates alone, the figure is higher than 30 percent. The number who are parents — among both undergraduate and graduate students — has increased from 3.2 million to 4.8 million since 1995, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research reports.
But colleges and universities are largely not set up to deal with them.
Instead, as budgets tighten, they’re shedding services such as day care. The proportion of four-year universities with day care centers — most of which also accept university employees’ children — is down from 55 percent to 49 percent since 2002, and the proportion of community colleges, from 53 percent to 44 percent, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.
“We talk about the college-readiness of our students,” Daniel Greenstein, director of postsecondary success at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, told a conference of the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning. “How student-ready are our colleges?”
The institute says 95 of 100 campus day care centers surveyed have waiting lists with an average of 82 children. That’s in spite of research at one community college that showed students who are parents and get child care are much more likely to return to school the following year and three times more likely to graduate than their counterparts who don’t have any place to put their kids.
Pushing older students back to college is essential to a national goal of increasing the proportion of the population with higher educations. Minnesota, for example, wants 70 percent of its residents to have certificates or degrees by 2025. Even if the high school graduation rate rose to 100 percent and every one of those students went to college, however, it would fall short by a quarter of a million degree holders, according to a new study by the Education Commission of the States. The disparity will have to be filled older adults, the commission says.
And the gap is even wider in some other states, the commission calculates, where older learners would have to make up 60 percent or more of new college graduates in order to meet degree goals.
There’s another incentive: More than 95 percent of jobs created during the country’s economic recovery have gone to workers with some college education, according to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, while, the center says, “recovery has been virtually nonexistent for less-educated workers.”
Yet the number of people over 24 in college isn’t going up. It has gone down, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reports, as the number of high school graduates has leveled off.
Older students who do enroll take longer to graduate than younger ones, from every kind of university or college except private, for-profit ones, the clearinghouse has found. Only 40 percent of older students with children manage to get degrees or certificates within six years, a lower proportion than their traditional-age classmates, and dropout rates are higher among older students with kids.
Critics say many campuses continue to operate as if it were 1970, when fewer than one in three undergraduate and graduate students was 25 or older. Colleges rarely offer essential classes in the summer, for example, or allow the flexibility their older students need to juggle work and school.
A junior majoring in early childhood education, Nalesnik said that if one of her children is sick and she misses a day of class, “It’s like missing a week. A lot of teachers won’t let you make stuff up.”
Having to find day care off campus adds to the already high cost of college. In her unsuccessful presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton proposed stipends of $1,500 a year for expenses including day care for up to a million student parents. An existing federal program that helps with child care, called Child Care Access Means Parents in School, has had its budget cut from $25 million in 2001 to $15 million last year.
“These numbers [of older-than-traditional-age students], they surprise many policymakers,” said Greenstein, whose foundation is trying to change perceptions of the typical college student. (The Gates Foundation is among the funders of The Hechinger Report, which produced this story.)
In fact, out of 47 state proposals since 2014 to make college free, 18 have explicitly restricted eligibility by age, generally setting a cutoff of 26 or based on the year a student finished high school, the Education Commission of the States says.
Many older students also transfer, some because they’ve moved and others after interruptions in their educations, Greenstein said. He said few schools make it easy to transfer credits, however.
Traditional college, with classes scheduled on weekdays over two semesters in an academic year, is “not actually the education that’s apt for the majority of students,” Greenstein said. More effectively serving them, he said, “is going to require a pretty fundamental re-equipping of our colleges and universities,” such as making better use of summer terms and allowing students to start classes throughout the year.
Community colleges have long been aware of these kinds of students. The average community college student is 28 years old, according to the American Association of Community Colleges, and nearly two-thirds are 22 or older.
Arizona’s Rio Salado College is one such school that’s trying to adapt to the new reality. The 56,000-student community college has 11 campuses, but more than half its students — 29,000 — take classes online.
Rio Salado tries to make life easier for working adults by letting online students start on nearly any Monday of the year, said President Chris Bustamante. “We build it so they really don’t need to come to campus,” Bustamante said. Tutors, financial aid counselors and academic advisers are always available online, he said. “It’s not enough for campuses to just build an online program. They have to build in those support systems.”
Many older students say they were simply too young to appreciate the value of a college degree right out of high school, but age and life experience have changed that mindset.
Diana Kramer, for example, attended a community college when she was 18, but it didn’t stick.
“I hated school, to be honest,” said Kramer, now 35 and an explosive ordnance disposal specialist for the U.S. Air Force. “I was more interested in snowboarding and mountain biking.”
As she got older, though, Kramer realized how much she wanted a college degree, and to attend classes on a college campus. But she was stationed in Alaska at the time, making a traditional education difficult.
Kramer settled on Arizona State University’s online program, which has allowed her to work toward a bachelor’s degree in psychology as she moves from place to place. She now is scheduled to deploy from Minot, N.D., to South Korea.
“There’s nothing wrong with going to college at 18, but not everyone can do that,” she said.
Colleges without robust online programs have been slower to adapt to the older population — or to attract them. At North Carolina’s Appalachian State University, for example, fewer than 8 percent of the undergraduate population is 25 or older, about seven percentage points less than the University of North Carolina system as a whole.
Appalachian State’s mountain location makes it more of a destination for 18-year-old freshmen than adult learners, said Terry Rawls, the university’s executive director for education outreach and summer programs. The school has not felt pressure to increase its enrollment of older students, Rawls said, but is interested in new audiences.
“We are looking at how we diversify in terms of both age and race and ethnicity,” he said. “But when we look outside that group (of traditional students), they’re not driving up the mountain.”
It also can be difficult for older students to adjust to campus life on a younger campus.
When Harim Lee arrived at the University of California at Berkeley as a 25-year-old transfer student, the sight of her 18- and 19-year-old classmates left her with what she calls “impostor syndrome.” The high-stress atmosphere at a school where fewer than one in 12 undergraduates is 25 or older left her craving friends she could identify with.
“It’s pretty hard to be connected to other re-entry students my age,” she said.
Even at the Anchorage campus, where nearly half the students are 25 or older, Nalesnik said she felt old.
“It was really weird at first,” she said. “My first semester, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I don’t belong here.’”