Shaken By Economic Change, 'Non-Traditional' Students Are Becoming The New Normal : NPR Ed The massive growth in the adult student population in America's colleges and universities — one quarter of all college students are over the age of 30 — is changing the higher ed landscape.
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Shaken By Economic Change, 'Non-Traditional' Students Are Becoming The New Normal

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Shaken By Economic Change, 'Non-Traditional' Students Are Becoming The New Normal

Shaken By Economic Change, 'Non-Traditional' Students Are Becoming The New Normal

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I think most people hate to think of themselves as middle class.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Have what you need, but maybe not everything you want.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We have a car, but we live in an apartment. That's middle class.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: If you add a boat, then you're not middle class anymore. That's what changes it right there.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: The middle class are families who are earning six figures.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Thirty thousand, $35,000, probably.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: That means me (laughter). And it means I'm in trouble (laughter).


Time now for Hanging On, our series on the economic pressures of American life. Colleges and Universities have seen enrollment growth following every recession since 1980, but the boost in enrollment following the Great Recession was even bigger. An increasing number of those students are older, working or have families. And these nontraditional students make up nearly half of all those enrolled in higher education today. NPR's Eric Westervelt looks at the rise of the adult student population.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Fifty-eight-year-old Chuck Sewell had a successful real estate career in Southern California for 30 years. He got into it in his late teens and built a business flipping homes, renting homes, staging properties and serving as an agent. But when the Great Recession hit, that all came crashing down. Sewell lost everything. For a time, he was living out of his truck.

CHUCK SEWELL: Ended up homeless and didn't have very much money left. The whole transition was quite a shock. It was a tough time to go through. Emotionally, psychologically, it was very difficult.

WESTERVELT: Sewell says, I knew I had to do something, to make a change to support myself for the rest of my life. He grew up in a large, poor and, by his own account, dysfunctional family. He left school after the fifth grade and eventually got his GED. Today, he's living off disability benefits and going to school full-time. He's getting straight A's at Pasadena City College, a community college in Southern California.

SEWELL: I had always wanted an education. I felt cheated out of my education because of my childhood and was very eager to go back to school. That was very exciting to me.

WESTERVELT: Inspired by his own personal and financial wipeout during the recession, he wants to get his B.A. and eventually a master's degree in social work. I want to give back, he says. I want to help people. Sewell's hardly alone. Almost 50 percent of all undergraduate students in higher education today can be categorized as nontraditional. At America's community colleges those students are the vast majority, and many of those two-year schools have pivoted to meet that demand. But Yancey Gulley, an assistant professor at Western Carolina University, says many four-year colleges and universities need to deal with the reality that their schools were structured mainly to serve 18- to 24-year-olds.

YANCEY GULLEY: The system of higher education, if you will, are serving a demographic of students for whom we are not prepared or built.

WESTERVELT: One example, he says - many adult learners take courses in the evenings when campus services are closed.

GULLEY: So what if they need tutoring help? What if they need to drop by the admissions office to change their program of study? What if they need to meet with financial aid? We're not equipped to handle that need.

WESTERVELT: Students such as 30-year-old Asia Duncan need help and support in ways that are different than 18- to 24-year-old students. She left a decade-long career in the retail jewelry business to go to college. She's a single mom with two boys, 8-year-old Leo and 18-month-old Ray. She split up with the father of her children, and she just didn't make enough money to support her two kids on her own in the jewelry business. She's now battling her ex-partner, she says, to pay child support.

ASIA DUNCAN: Now everything kind of falling on my lap, two kids - I've got to kind of get my priorities in line and go back to school and do what I need to do.

WESTERVELT: Free babysitting from her grandmother who lives nearby helps a lot, she says, and federal Pell Grants make a big difference with tuition. But it's a struggle. She's now looking to take out student loans soon. She's happy, though. She's getting good grades at Pasadena City College, working on a new dream to become a doctor.

DUNCAN: I think I just want a job, a position, a career where I don't have to worry about money, I don't have to think about that. And then I also want to be able to help someone.

WESTERVELT: Higher ed watchers such as Yancey Gulley say more schools need to pivot to address the needs of older students and soon. The already large higher ed adult student population is projected to grow even larger in coming years.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News.

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