Typical College Student No Longer So Typical
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.
This past weekend, dorms across the country started to fill up with new students, fresh out of high school, ready to start their four years of college, which is how most of us might describe the typical freshman.
But it's been nearly a decade since the National Center for Education Statistics announced that 73 percent of all undergraduates don't fit that mold.
In fact, the typical college student in America has a job, a family, is enrolled part-time or some combination of all three. So how do those students change the face of higher education?
If you're in college as a student or professor, and yes, we mean community college, too, how do non-traditional students change the classroom, the campus, the entire experience?
Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, "The Passage" by Justin Cronin, whose vampires stalked beaches and swimming pools across the country this summer. But first, a portrait of a nontraditional student body.
We begin with Kathryn McCormick, a single mother of two girls, a full-time waitress and a student in the Physical Assistant Program at Valencia Community College in Orlando. She joins us from there and the studios of member station WMFE. And Kat, nice to have you with us today.
Ms. KATHRYN McCORMICK (Student, Valencia Community College): Thank you. It's nice to be here.
CONAN: How did you end up back in school?
Ms. McCORMICK: Oh, well, it was kind of a long road to get there. Went back a couple of different times during the course of, you know, the past 13 years. But it just wasn't with the economy drop and the way things are, just not making enough money to be able to, you know, not go back to school, so...
CONAN: And I know that you're working for the future of your children, Rose(ph), who is two, and Arden(ph), 13. But on the other hand, you've got two young children or one very young child, and you're working full time, and you're going to school. When do you sleep?
Ms. McCORMICK: Sleep is sometimes not an option.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. McCORMICK: Between, you know, it would be different I guess if the little one, you know, wasn't running amok. But yeah, I end up studying a lot after she goes to bed.
So sleep isn't necessarily something that comes too easily these days. But you just look at it - like, small amount of time, get through it, get to do what you have to do so that, you know, you give them a better future and something to look up to.
CONAN: And is your story typical of those in the Physician's Assistant Program there at Valencia?
Ms. McCORMICK: Well, Valencia, I'm actually the Physician's Assistant Program will end up being at Nova. I'm pre-med at this point. So I'm taking, you know, a heavy course load in biologies and that kind of thing and a general course load in what I would have to do to get my associate's and my bachelor's degree.
But the demographics of the way school is now and the way - my peer group, you know, you would think that at my age, I would be an abnormality, and I might be uncomfortable with my peer group. And I'm just not because I am what it looks like.
There's, you know, there's a lot of kids that look like me, that aren't kids, and a few that are kids. So, you know, that's what you see.
CONAN: How are you paying for this?
Ms. McCORMICK: I am taking out loans. I have a decent amount of debt already accrued, I would say, and I get the federal Pell grant, which with the new bill that's been passed by legislation that came out with the health care bill, has gone up, which is nice.
That'll pay for most of my course load in the undergraduate level. But then I take out loans so that I can, you know, kind of supplement, so I can do room and board, you know, from there.
CONAN: And you're studying to be a physician's assistant, as you say, lots of biology, heavy on the sciences. Some people if you had your druthers, might you be studying English or history?
Ms. McCORMICK: If I had what?
CONAN: If you had your preferences, if you had your druthers?
Ms. McCORMICK: I like English and history, but my dad was a biology teacher and, you know, my grandfather a principal. And they were both biology teachers. And I - you know, you - it's imperative. This day and age, the biologies and the sciences and those type of things are -they're imperative to, you know, to everything.
So you end up getting a little bit more of it's a harder course load, yeah. Like, it's more difficult than if I were to take history and English and, you know, I'm really good at those things. But it's a challenge to do the sciences, and you end up walking away with more of an accomplishment, you know, feeling like you got something under your belt.
CONAN: And a degree in an industry where they're still hiring.
Ms. McCORMICK: A degree in an industry that's not going to go anywhere. There's the health care industry is never going to be without the need of educated people. And, you know, on top of the fact that I really, really enjoy spending time with people, and I have a lot of the humanity side of that, that we don't see a lot in the health care field, as much as I would like to see it. And I bring that to the table. And I'm looking forward to being able to use those assets, you know, in the workforce.
CONAN: We wish you the best of luck, and we thank you for taking the time that could have been devoted to precious sleep to be with us here today.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. McCORMICK: Why, thank you so much.
CONAN: Kathryn McCormick, Kat, a single mom and a full-time waitress, studying to become a physician's assistant at Valencia Community College in Florida.
Joining us here in Studio 3A is Kevin Carey, policy director for the Education Sector, an education policy think tank based here in D.C. And nice to have you with us today on TALK OF THE NATION.
Mr. KEVIN CAREY (Policy Director, Education Sector): Nice to be here.
CONAN: And Kat McCormick, is that our typical college student today?
Mr. CAREY: There are many, many Kat McCormicks in America today. We see students all over the country, particular with a 10 percent unemployment rate, a lot of people going back to college to get credentials to upgrade their skills to be more competitive in the job market. A lot of students who don't go directly from high school to college, who live their lives for a while, who start families, who have jobs and then eventually decide they need that credential in order to get a good job.
CONAN: And it astonishes me how late these statistics come out. But I mean, back in 2002, the last snapshot we had statistically, you'd have to think that given those situations you're talking about, those trends have accelerated.
Mr. CAREY: I imagine they have.
CONAN: And the obvious reasons, are there well, the obvious question is: Are there, in fact, a greater percentage of Americans at school today than ever before?
Mr. CAREY: Yes. If you go back to the early 1970s, less than half of all students who graduated from high school went on to college. Today, it's over three-quarters. And the reasons are pretty clear. The gap in earnings between people who have a college degree and people who don't have one has widened substantially over time.
A lot of blue-collar jobs have left America, have gone overseas at the same time that the information technology revolution has made people who have advanced skills more valuable in the job market. And so students respond to that.
CONAN: And we just heard from a student at a community college. Can the same story be told by student bodies at four-year colleges?
Mr. CAREY: Yes. So, you know, about half of all students, college students in America are enrolled at community colleges. But many, many nontraditional students are also at four-year institutions, particularly regional public institutions.
CONAN: Let's get a caller in on the conversation, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. Let's start with Elvie(ph), Elvie with us from New Braunfels in Texas.
ELVIE (Caller): Hi there.
CONAN: Hi there.
ELVIE: Yes, I am a nontraditional student at Texas State. I am 45, mother of two and went back to school a year and a half ago. And it's been a wonderful addition to my life. And oftentimes, I find myself I enjoy listening. So I listen to discussions in the classroom and take in what the younger generation's thought processes are about whatever the topic is, and...
CONAN: Do you need a translator from time to time?
ELVIE: No, no, not a translator, but I often respond with a thing that kind of sparks something else, which it makes me feel really good because I bring in a thought process that they haven't covered yet because they don't have the life experience to draw from.
But they're all very receptive, and I feel really go ahead.
CONAN: Where is it you go to school, Elvie?
ELVIE: Texas State in San Marcos.
CONAN: And so that's most of the people there are typical four-year college students?
ELVIE: Oh yes, four-year college students, and I'm not sure the percentage of students that are nontraditional, but we're there. We're present.
CONAN: And do you ever once in a while catch somebody's eye across the classroom who's from your age group, perhaps, and share a moment of just I can't believe these kids?
ELVIE: Oh yes, oh yes. And I often get ma'am, and I'll say, well, you don't really have to call me that yes, ma'am.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Okay. Elvie...
ELVIE: Which is a nice compliment, anyway.
CONAN: Good luck to you, Elvie.
ELVIE: Well, thank you.
CONAN: Bye-bye. And Kevin Carey, obviously the presence of people like Elvie, who is considerably older than a lot of the people in her classes, that's got to change the nature of the classroom and indeed the campus.
Mr. CAREY: I think that's right. I mean, when we talked about the percentage of people who go to college increasing, most of that percentage has come from nontraditional students entering college.
So the typical student, upper-middle-class people who go when they're 18, live in dorms, they were going to 100 years ago. They're going to college today. The new students are the nontraditional students.
And so it's a challenge for colleges, which are used to doing things certain ways, only offering courses during the day, for example, to educate students who need classes at night because they have childcare responsibilities and jobs to go to.
CONAN: Let's go next to Kendall(ph), Kendall with us from Casper, Wyoming.
KENDALL (Caller): Hi.
CONAN: Hi, Kendall.
KENDALL: Well, I'm also a nontraditional student. I'm not quite as nontraditional as your last caller. I'm 28. But I don't have any children, but I am married. So it is difficult for me to be able to travel.
I'm able, luckily, to do the outreach program here in Casper through the University of Wyoming in Laramie. But most of the people that are in my classes are also only doing this through an outreach program.
And so we're all nontraditional. And I've maybe taken one class with a traditional student, and they went on to do other things. I'm studying. I'm almost done. I have one more semester left to be a secondary education biology teacher.
KENDALL: Thank you. I'm very excited. I've been going to school for 10 years.
(Soundbite of laughter)
KENDALL: We right out of high school, I was not ready, and I actually did go to college, but I flunked out my first year. And so I needed to take a break and work for a little bit, and then I got married. And then I decided that I needed to do something with my life.
And I actually ended up having to go down to Laramie and stay in the dorms this last summer and realize that I was much too old to be in a dorm.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Well, Kendall, the second-graders will be better for it. Thank you very much for the phone call. We appreciate it.
KENDALL: Thank you.
CONAN: We're talking about the new normal when it comes to the student body at colleges and universities. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.
There's no such thing as a typical college student anymore. Most have to take classes part-time - almost half, rather, take classes part-time. A third work full-time. More than a quarter have dependents of their own.
We're talking today about the changing portrait of the average college student and how that shift affects classrooms and campuses.
If you're in college or community college as a student or professor, how do nontraditional students change the classroom, the campus, the whole experience? 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
With us here in Studio 3A is Kevin Carey, policy director for Education Sector, an education policy think-tank based in Washington, D.C. And let's see if we can go next to this is Michael(ph), Michael with us from Providence.
MICHAEL (Caller): Yes, thank you for having me.
CONAN: Go ahead, please.
MICHAEL: Well, I'm a 28-year-old veteran of Afghanistan, and when I got out, you know, I had initially in high school, I'd had a poor showing as far as education was concerned. I was extremely excited after having been in Afghanistan and seeing what the world is like without education. I really, really wanted to get into it, and as soon as I got involved in community college, I kind of didn't really feel like it was meeting my needs in an education sense.
And I really wanted to get more involved in community and got involved with an alternative high school, which has recently started a college program called College Unbound.
And I was just extremely excited to get an opportunity to work in a program that was as different and as, you know, just able to integrate my passion and interest directly into what we were doing for coursework.
And the model was so different that it has just, it has opened up the world to me as far as what I was going to be able to accomplish inside of pursuing a bachelor's degree, which is something I never thought was possible.
CONAN: And are you now in that pursuit?
MICHAEL: I am. I'm involved in a program. I'm beginning my first year now. And it has been phenomenal from the get-go.
The goal of the college, this particularly program, College Unbound, was to try to correct this, the horrible statistics that are out there that first-year college students, apparently from what I understand, you know, roughly 89, 90 percent of first-year college students or rather first-generation college students never get the opportunity to graduate. They continue to pursue it, if they are able to, but don't graduate.
And so as far as nontraditional students go, I think their approach is to try to make a nontraditional model to fit those students.
CONAN: Well, we have another nontraditional student that's a little along your lines, Michael, with us here in the studio, Brandon Krapf, he's an Iraq War veteran, now in the Army Reserves, a senior at American University here in Washington, D.C. Nice to have you with us today.
Mr. BRANDON KRAPF (Student, American University): Thanks for having me, Neal.
CONAN: And what made you decide after coming back, like Michael, to decide to go to school?
Mr. KRAPF: Well, going to college was always definitely a dream of mine for many years. I took a break off by going and serving six years in the military, and in 2006, when I got out, I started at a, you know, a small community college in New Jersey, similar to I think a lot of nontraditional students, that they start out at a two-year school and transfer in from that.
So I took that route and came to American University in the fall of 2007, and it's been an interesting journey since then.
CONAN: It - is community college where you - did you stick out, and did you stick out when you got to American, which is a more typical four-year college?
Mr. KRAPF: Community college, not so much. The types of people there generally are nontraditional students. They're just other students that either were not able to or were not prepared yet for a regular four-year university, or it was just easier because it's closer to home. So, not so much there.
But definitely at American University, there was a big change. I did a summer semester at sea program right before, and that was actually my first real collegiate experience, to be able to be around so many 19-year-old kids and everything that were coming from big, four-year universities.
CONAN: Michael, is that - anything like that happen to you?
MICHAEL: Well, in this instance, beginning with community college, yes, it was difficult because I felt like there was a little bit of a 13th-grade thing going on. There was the first student body, it was beautiful, but I think there's a tendency in some cases, and I don't want to bash all community colleges - certainly, they tend to teach kind of down to the level of their expectations.
And so, for me, I was rip-roaring, ready to go. I had really developed a lot of energy. And yes, I also, you know, I took some of the coursework that I had done in community college and brought it into this opportunity, which it's not entirely a traditional four-year school. So the opportunities really are endless.
I'm going to get this chance to do this work that I'm passionate about, in this case, community access to sailing and maritime pursuits for inner-city students and so forth. And being able to actually do that work currently with my school, so I can apply these different concepts and the different coursework to what I'm doing and vice versa, which really is helping me to get through that process, you know, transition to working and doing things at the same time and learning through that process, which has been fantastic so far.
CONAN: Well, Michael, we wish you the best of luck.
MICHAEL: Thank you so much.
CONAN: Appreciate it. I wonder, Brandon Krapf, I don't suppose they're teaching what you did in Iraq as history yet.
Mr. KRAPF: Actually, they are. Actually, AU has a course called post-Saddam Iraq, which is it's interesting because you basically are learning about, it's, you know, basically like living history. And it was like that in community college to a degree, but especially here at American University, which is in D.C.
So it's, you know, it's been ranked as the most politically active student body in the nation out of all universities. So these topics definitely come up a lot, and it's something it's interesting when you're sitting in there, in a class, and it's part of the dialogue.
And I think that that's one of the things with the fabric of, you know, higher education is that with a lot more Iraq War vets and Afghanistan War vets coming back with the new GI bill here, you're getting these pieces of information and these stories that are weaved into that fabric.
CONAN: Kevin Carey, any statistics on the number of vets who are beginning to populate community and traditional four-year colleges?
Mr. CAREY: Well, it's a large population, and it will continue to grow as the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan continue and wind down. And it's a challenge for a lot of community colleges.
I think returning veterans have, you know, they tend to be older. The ones that I talked to are very similar to the gentlemen that we heard from earlier. They tend to have a lot of focus and enthusiasm for education.
Sometimes, the matchup of expectations with more traditional students aren't exactly right. I think at their best, higher education can be a place where returning veterans can come together and form communities, but sometimes, there's that transition difficulty.
CONAN: Here's an email from Shannon(ph) in Kansas City: Listening to your show, I am not a traditional student. I'm 30 years old. I have no college credits. I start my first college course tomorrow in community college.
I now work full-time. I'm a wife and full-time stepmother of a very active nine-year-old boy. I am scared to death. It has been 12 years since I stepped foot in a classroom. I had an option of going to college when I graduated high school, but I wasn't interested at the time.
I have not truly struggled in my life with money, but I think I have missed out on the finer things in life. I am hoping to attain my associate's in the next two years, move on to my bachelor's. I am currently interested in business administration but may change to finance. I'm not sure yet. I need to see how this first semester goes.
Terrified, Brandon, does that sound familiar?
Mr. KRAPF: Yeah, I would definitely say that. When you start out, I mean, you definitely have that motivation that I think the caller Michael was talking about, that you're just very driven. And particularly as being older students, you're lot more, I think, especially for the military, task-oriented. So you're very driven to really just tackle it really big.
And I would say, like, my advice to her would be just definitely leave some gap for leeway. Like, understand that you're tackling a task that's a four-year-long task that, for a lot of people, is going to turn into a lot more than four years, and you need to be ready to adjust.
CONAN: A marathon, not a sprint, as they say.
Mr. KRAPF: Absolutely.
CONAN: Let's go next to Wayne(ph), Wayne on the line with us from Sacramento.
WAYNE (Caller): Hi, thanks for having me on.
CONAN: Go ahead.
WAYNE: I kind of have an interesting perspective. I'm a teacher at a vocational school here in Sacramento. We do welding in my program. And I see similarities between the students I have in my program here and at Sacramento State, where I'm enrolled, some of the students I see there.
I'm 31 years old, and I notice a big gap in the students' ability to critical-think. You know, and as one of your previous callers had mentioned, it almost seems like sometimes the curriculum is brought down to their level. And I really think that that's a mistake that instructors are making.
They should help the students raise up, not bring the curriculum down to that level...
CONAN: Brandon, you're nodding. Was that your experience at community college?
Mr. KRAPF: Well, it's often my experience in four-year university that I think there just seems to be oftentimes an acceptance to just the dialogue and how things are worked, as if it's just kind of passed on from generation to generation in schools.
And yeah, I definitely feel that a lot of the newer students, the younger students, there's just times that a complicated question or issue will arise, and it just seems that people just kind of accept it. And the critical thinking seems to be like a standard, dogmatic critical thinking but not a real critical thinking, not like an actual, outside of the box.
And I think that's something that you usually only get from a lot of experience, which I think lacks oftentimes.
CONAN: Memo to Brandon's professors: Doesn't think school is hard enough.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Wayne, what do you think we could do to repair that?
WAYNE: Well, I really think it needs to start at the high school level. I really think that some preparation needs to go into helping these students understand what's going to be required of them in college and not teach to the test but teach to the principle, teach to the concept that they're trying to learn.
You know, we do a lot of - some math equations when it comes to welding, and you put a math equation in front of some of these students, and the first thing they want is they want all the variables defined. They don't try and take the information they know and apply it. There's just no application there.
And I really think that comes from how some of these things are taught at the high school level. And, you know, unfortunately, the education system here in California is very broken, and that's a long way off, but...
CONAN: And people at high school level say it's the problem of the grade schools because the people who are getting out of grammar school aren't ready for high school either or the middle school. And, Kevin Carey, this is sort of an endless loop.
Mr. CAREY: Well, I mean, right. You can go all the way back to when somebody was a month old and someone made a mistake and everyone can claim no responsibility from that point forward. And there is a big problem in high schools. You know, three-quarters of all high school graduates are going onto college, but a far smaller percentage are actually being prepared to succeed in college. And so we know that almost half of all community college students, for example, have to take remedial math and English classes. They basically have to take high school classes in college but this time they have to pay for them and they don't get credit.
At the same time, you know, I think colleges themselves can do more. There's not - we don't really have very much information about which colleges do a good job teaching students. We know which ones are the most famous and most selective and which ones have football teams that win bowl games. What we don't really know and what students who are choosing colleges don't know is where are they really going to get an education that's good for them.
CONAN: Okay. Thank you, Wayne. Thanks very much for the call. Good point.
WAYNE: Thank you.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Here's a tweet we got from Jessie(ph), a 28-year-old Iraq vet, now online student studying computer science. Also had poor showing first time out in high school. Maturity equals win, he tells us.
This is Alyna(ph) or Alyna. I don't know how to pronounce that. I'm the wife of a non-traditional college student. My husband had been in college for about six years with the goal of becoming a nurse practitioner. One of the most frustrating things for him as a returning and non-traditional student is that he's still required to take most of the generals that first-time college students take. Is that like English 101 and something like that? It seems that his experience should count for some of his courses. It would be nice to see some credit given to returning students for their previous life and job experience or other options for them to demonstrate their knowledge and be able to skip some classes. It's great that there are so many online options though and it's made it possible for my husband to work and continue his education.
Any life experience credit for six years in Iraq?
Mr. KRAPF: Well, six years in the military.
CONAN: In the military, yeah. Wasn't all in Iraq.
Mr. KRAPF: Actually, yes, Neal. I got two two-credit health classes.
CONAN: Two credit health classes.
Mr. KRAPF: Two two-credit, so a total of four credits. That's six years.
CONAN: Four credits.
Mr. KRAPF: Six years of training and real world experience and doing, you know, stuff at a professional level that easily you see people doing the same things that have master's degrees and PhD's and - yeah, I got four credits for that.
CONAN: Kevin Carey, it seems they might be a little bit more generous.
Mr. CAREY: Well, you know, a lot of our colleges were built from traditional students, so traditional students don't come in with any life experience. They just finished high school. And so those colleges were designed to give credits for being taught in college. And they don't really think about - I don't think they've really adjusted to the extent that they ought to, to the reality of the non-traditional students, people who may have a diverse set of experience and skills that ought to be properly credited.
CONAN: We're talking with Kevin Carey - you just heard - policy director for Education Sector, a policy think-tank based here in Washington. Also with us, Brandon Krapf, Iraq war veteran, now in the Army Reserves and a senior at the American University here in Washington, D.C.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Let's go next to Dorothy(ph), Dorothy with us from Fresno.
DOROTHY (Caller): Oh, good afternoon. Thanks for taking the call.
DOROTHY: I have so many things to respond to. I don't know where to begin. I was a non-traditional student back in 1965 or '66. I went to -started at a community college here in California, transferred to a state college, graduated, went on, got a master's degree, taught at a community college, and then taught at West Virginia University for 23 years. So I have had experience at all the levels that people have been talking about.
A, I don't think the professors or the faculty at community colleges are talking down to the students, or if they are doing so now, they didn't do that when I was at the community college. B, for the woman who called in and is scared because she's in her 30s and just starting college, tell her not to be scared. Most of the professors that I've encountered appreciated adult students in their classrooms because it raises the level of discussion in response to the people that are talking about lack of critical thinking.
As someone else pointed out, these 18-year-old kids that are coming straight from high school haven't had an opportunity to have - to do any critical thinking or have real discussions at an adult level. And so, with an adult or two in the classroom - and, incidentally, there were quite a few of us back in the 1960s. Maybe that petered out and it's not so - became less common because now, everybody on your program has been acting as if these were a brand new phenomenon.
CONAN: If we left that impression, we apologize. It's not a new phenomenon, and it's 10 years since 73 percent of all students in colleges and universities described as non-traditional.
DOROTHY: Exactly. And as I say, the professors always welcomed - and I, as a professor, when I moved on to West Virginia University, I appreciated having adults in the classroom for a number of reasons. They were focused. They concentrated on getting the job done. And they served as a - and I think I did, too, not to take too much credit for myself, but as a kind of inspiration to the younger people who - I mean, they're - when I first started at the community college, it was called Marin Junior College and was at Kentfield, which is a kind of a posh suburb of San Francisco. And we used to joke about it and say community college was just a high school with ashtrays.
(Soundbite of laughter)
DOROTHY: But in those days, I don't think there was this talk down business, but I could - you know, things may have changed since then.
DOROTHY: Kids may - there may be more - well, there are more people going to college who are less prepared probably.
CONAN: Well, Dorothy, thank you and your experience in all realms of this. We appreciate the phone call.
DOROTHY: Thank you.
CONAN: Here's an email, quickly, from Joe(ph) in Minneapolis. What groups perform better academically in college, those straight out of high school or those who delayed college for some time? We'll put that to you, Kevin.
Mr. CAREY: Well, there's not a huge difference actually if you look at both populations on the whole, but there's a lot of variation inside of them. And so, you know, it is true that people who delay going to college are a little less likely to graduate once they get there, but that's all tied up into a lot of other factors - having to work, having families and so forth.
So, I think, both groups have an opportunity to perform. But colleges probably have to do more to, again, accommodate the specific needs of non-traditional students than they're doing now.
CONAN: Kevin Carey, policy director for Education Sector, an education policy think tank. You're in Washington. Also, thanks to Brandon Krapf, a veteran of the war in Iraq, now a senior at American University. He also took part in the documentary video series that profiled a number of non-traditional college students. The project was called "Degrees of Difficulty," produced by Purple Stage TV. You can see some of those videos through our link at npr.org, just click on TALK OF THE NATION. Thanks very much to both of you.
Mr. CAREY: Thank you.
Mr. KRAPF: Thank you.
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