A college education is usually a ticket to a better job, better health and overall life satisfaction – that is if you can get one. Non-traditional students — those who are older, who work fulltime or who have families – can have a tough time just figuring out how to apply to college, talk to a professor or find scholarships or financial aid. Our guest discusses the hurdles non-traditional students have to clear and what schools and communities can do to make their transition into higher education easier.

Host: Marty Peterson. Guest: Mike Rose, faculty member at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, and author of the book Back to School: Why everyone deserves a second chance at education.

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Helping Non-traditional Students Succeed

Marty Peterson: All the colleges and universities are in session now, and freshman and upperclassmen are in the routine of classes, studying, and having fun on campus. There are an increasing number of students, though, who don’t fit the profile of the 18- or 19-year-old high school graduate who is away from home for the first time, and thinking of pledging a sorority…

Mike Rose: Over the last couple of decades the composition of the college-going population has changed pretty dramatically.

Peterson: That’s Mike Rose, faculty member at the U-C-L-A Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, and author of the book Back to School: Why everyone deserves a second chance at education

Rose: What we used to call the non-traditional student, that is somebody who’s not 18 or 19 and not just coming out of college, that quote-unquote non-traditional student is pretty rapidly becoming the norm. The average of the community college student is 28, for example and more and more undergraduates at two- and four-year schools are they’re parents, they work part time or more than part time, they’re older than 18 or 19, some have to go part time because of their other obligations. So the composition has really changed.

Peterson: Why did these students wait so long to apply for and attend college?

Rose: It’s a very interesting question because there’s so many factors involved. So in some cases these are folks who came out of high school and went into a job. In other cases they came out, they wanted to start a family, found a job, did that. Some went into the service; some have been incarcerated. So there’s a wide range of people who end up coming back to school later.

Peterson: Rose says that not all of the students who are older and don’t fit into the usual college demographic end up at community colleges…

Rose: They go everywhere, right? I mean everywhere from the local occupational center to Yale or Harvard. But the majority of them end up going to the community college or to the local small college or state institution, and some go to private colleges – the for-profit sector. In fact, something like 85% of our undergraduates period go to quote-unquote non-elite schools, that is to the community colleges, to the local state colleges and that’s certainly true for the folks we’re talking about.

Peterson: Many of those students who are heading off to school after a few years in the workforce present a challenge to colleges of every type because the schools aren’t always set up to meet the unique needs of this group…

Rose: In many cases the time that they’ve been out of school has made them a little bit rusty, or in some instances they didn’t have a very good education to start with. So it’s exciting to see so many people returning to school, but it also presents certain kinds of challenges for the institution: the kinds of courses they need to offer, the sort of counseling they need to make available, the fact that people can’t go part time or have to work during part of the day means that colleges need to give classes at different times and make counseling available at different times. But many schools are responding to these challenges.

Peterson: Just applying to schools can be a challenge for the older, non-traditional student. Rose says that they often have no idea how to get started, and no experience of their own or in their family to draw on…

Rose: The typical non-traditional student is often not coming from a family that has had a lot of experience with higher education. And that’s not to say anything negative about them. That was my family as well. It’s just that they haven’t had that experience. So students coming in are, just from the get-go, not going to know as much, they’re not going to have that kind of savvy that someone coming from a family with a long history of college going. So they’re not going to know some of the ins and outs about how you get what you need, or how to approach the counseling office, how to handle the financial aid question, how to decide on a major. I mean there’s so much going in that they’re just at a disadvantage.

Peterson: The second major challenge is that some non-traditional students don’t know the ins and outs of navigating college life…

Rose: Once they’re in, they often don’t have the same level of preparation. Many of them went to schools that were themselves challenged or under-resourced or in various kinds of trouble. So in talking to many of these students and sitting in classes with them and having been one myself a long time ago, I can tell you they face a number of challenges that range from all the way from how do I talk to my professor, how do I ask a question when I don’t know something without seeming like an idiot – ranging all the way from that to really big questions like “Oh, my gosh, how do I finally decide on a major that’s going to be fulfilling for me?”

Peterson: What about counseling? High school and college students certainly have access to trained professionals who can help them with the tactics and strategies they need to apply for and fit into school. Rose says that counseling is a way to clear these hurdles but, unfortunately, not all schools are able to accommodate the numbers of students who need their help…

Rose: We’ve got to remember that the load of the typical high school counselor is something like 800 students, and in community colleges it goes even higher than that. I just spent a couple of years in a really poor community college in Los Angeles where the ratio is almost 2,000 to one. Now how in God’s name can you really provide the kind of assistance we’re talking about when you’ve got those kinds of student-counselor ratios? So that’s an area now where a lot of people are trying to focus and see if there’s ways that we can do a better job of providing information to students – especially early on.

Peterson: Rose says that non-traditional students often need more than one chance at making college work, but how many chances do you provide? If a student fails because he or she doesn’t show up for class or doesn’t hand in assignments wouldn’t it be more productive to give another student who shows more perseverance that desk instead?

Rose: I think that that’s a legitimate question, and I’m going to answer it in two ways: one is we are a second chance society and we’re that kind of place. We do give people another shot at things. I mean not just with college, in many other ways as well. There’s lots of folks that grow up. I mean it’s as simple as that, right? They make a lot of knucklehead mistakes, they don’t see the purpose of things and then something happens. In some cases they start a family, in other cases something tragic happens in their lives or a job they thought was really secure disappears. Things happen to people that change them profoundly. And to not provide them the opportunity I think is not only a disservice to them, but it’s a disservice to us because it’s going to cost us less in the long run if we spend a couple years helping somebody get the kind of education that’s going to end up making them a better citizen, enable them to get a better job, pay more taxes, get into less trouble, use fewer social services.

Peterson: The second reason, Rose says, is because we have never given up on educating our citizens and we have a long history of providing people of all abilities any number of opportunities to better themselves…

Rose: If you go back to the 19th century we had all kinds of self-improvements societies, and mechanics institutes and unions like the Knights of Labor had a whole educational component to them. Or farmers’ organizations like The Grange did as well. The Morrell Act, the act in the mid-19th century that created the land grant colleges is part of that impulse to, you know, bring education to more and more people. Look at what the G.I. Bill did for World War II vets. So it’s just who we are. We’re a country that believes in providing second or third chances and education is an ideal place to be able to do that, I think.

Peterson: There has been talk about making community colleges free of charge to encourage more people of all ages to further their education. If you make it free, and give chance after chance to make good, where’s the incentive to do well?

Rose: I think that’s a legitimate behavioral economics question. What’s so interesting is that we have an experiment going on with that right now in Tennessee and I think also it’s being tried in Oklahoma. But there are places now where they’re actually trying that where your community college or occupational school is free, that is tuition free, and so we can actually watch this and see what happens. You would think, just looking at human behavior, you would think that if you don’t have any skin in the game you’re going to be less engaged. But, remember, free tuition doesn’t necessarily mean that it doesn’t cost you anything. I mean people are still needing to pony up funds to support themselves. And while they’re going to school they’re not making money and other kind of work. So, it’s not without any burden, but I think it’s going to be interesting to see what happens over the next few years as we watch these experiments, because my predication is they’re going to have benefits.

Peterson: And those benefits include more workers and taxpayers on the rolls, more civic participation and voting, and healthier families overall. Rose hopes that schools and the government will realize that non-traditional students have a lot to offer their communities and the country if they can obtain the counseling services they need to find and pay for college, have flexible schedules that take into account their work and family lives, and find a welcoming and supportive environment once they arrive on campus. You can read about the challenges of non-traditional students and ideas on how to meet their needs in Mick Rose’s book, “Back to School, available now in paperback in stores and on his website at MikeRoseBooks.com. For more information about all of our guests, log onto our site at Viewpoints online.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher.

Our show is written and produced by Pat Reuter. Our production directors are Sean Waldron, Reed Pence and Nick Hofstra. I’m Marty Peterson.