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Off the Beaten Path

The growing number of nontraditional students could spell trouble for traditional programs that are slow to adapt to this group’s needs.

Marie Bembrey decided several years ago that she wanted to pursue her dream of becoming a lawyer. But Bembrey, a paralegal at a Nashville, Tenn., law firm, couldn’t see adding classes to an already packed schedule. The 53-year-old grandmother needed the salary from her job to pay the bills, and she helped care for her young grandchildren in the evenings.

Because none of the universities in the Nashville area offered programs to suit her schedule, she ended up taking online classes through the University of Phoenix.

“Going online worked for me because I had so many obstacles in my life to work around,” says Bembrey, who is working on her bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.

That, she says, and the fact that the typical classroom setting doesn’t suit her well.

“Because I’m so set in my ways, I can’t sit in a classroom. It won’t work for me,” she says. “(With the University of Phoenix) I can get up and go to school at 2 a.m. in the morning. It’s convenient. I’m also not a good test-taker. Online, you don’t have to take tests, unless they’re open book.”

The number of nontraditional college students — defined as students not attending college right after high school or who must work while attending — has seen steady growth since the 1980s as more people already working or raising a family decide to get a degree. A report by the National Center for Education Statistics in 2002 said 73 percent of all undergraduates were nontraditional students.

Some 81 percent of Black and American Indian students have at least one characteristic of a nontraditional student; 76 percent of Hispanic, 67 percent Asian and 66 percent of Whites do as well, according to the American Council on Education.

And for the 2008-2009 school year, a for-profit institution that seemingly caters to this population — the University of Phoenix — enrolled more new students than any other program in the country.

That could spell trouble for traditional programs slow to adapt to nontraditional needs. With the graduating class of 2008, the University of Phoenix’s online campus overtook Florida A&M and Howard universities as the top producer of bachelor’s degrees awarded to African-Americans.

According to U.S. Census figures, in 2005, there were 17.5 million college students. About 37 percent of them were 25 years old or older. Projections by NCES show more growth for the nontraditional crowd than for those entering college following high school graduation over the next few years.

“To quote the Lumina Foundation, the nontraditional student is nontraditional no more,” says James Selbe, assistant vice president for lifelong learning at ACE .

State policymakers have started to address the need to adapt the educational system to meet the needs of nontraditional students, Selbe says. For example, Ohio’s “stackable certificate” program allows nontraditional students to earn and accumulate certificates, or essentially college credit, through adult career centers, specialized training programs, and employment experience that will eventually apply toward a college degree.

For now nontraditional institutions such as Strayer University and the University of Phoenix have the advantage, offering flexibility for those who can’t find the time to physically sit their way to a degree during daytime hours.

“Some people can’t make it to school every Tuesday,” says James McCoy, a regional vice president for Strayer. “So they take the class online.”

McCoy says outside factors — jobs, families, church obligations — are why lots of people looking to earn a degree come to his school. Strayer’s program offers night, weekend and online courses so that people can schedule school around their everyday life. The school has associate, bachelor’s and master’s degree programs.

Targeted Services

To stay in the fight, traditional schools have tested out curricula in several popular areas, offering heavy night class loads to accommodate students’ scheduling conflicts. University of Oregon Coordinator of Nontraditional Student Programs Gretchen Jewett says the school has staff devoted to ensuring the success of its nontraditional students. Several programs exist at the university to help nontraditional students who don’t spend much time on campus to adapt to the community.

James McCoy, a regional vice president for Strayer University, says outside factors such as jobs, families and church obligations are why lots of people come to his school.

There are also activities on campus raising awareness of the contributions of nontraditional students on the campus, she says.

“They put on a whole week of activities in November for just recognizing that not all the students on our campus are 18 to 22,” she says.

For parents, there are three childcare centers on campus so that children can be cared for while a parent attends a class. The university offers family housing. Reimbursement for childcare is also available.

But the school does not offer a major where a student could finish with a degree without taking a few classes during the day.

“I’m not sure we’re there yet,” she says, when asked if University of Oregon students can earn a degree entirely online. “Some classes are offered online and at different times during the day. We hope that with those options, students can find something that works for them. It’s probably one of the things that pushes nontraditional students into certain majors that are more flexible with their outside lives.”

Dr. Seth Sykes, an assistant dean at university college at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Va., says students can navigate their way through many of the school’s popular degree programs by taking a majority of the classes at night. Smaller programs are not likely to offer night courses, he says, because of the number of students who would be taking them. Online courses have become available, too, he says, but only a handful at a time and when they are highly sought after by students.

“There’s a steady increase in the number (of online classes),” he says. “But for the most part, we’re a very t r a d i t i o n a l campus with very few online classes.” While the school recognizes its nont r a d i t i o n a l student population is rising, Sykes says programs are not being refocused with them in mind.

“We have programs for the general student population that may be more beneficial to the nontraditional students, but we’re not necessarily targeting programs to this population,” he says of the university, which had 32,000 students enrolled in fall 2008.

Gretchen Jewett, coordinator of nontraditional student programs at the University of Oregon, says the school gives out 25 scholarships annually for nontraditional students.

Many traditional schools across the country also offer scholarships specifically for nontraditional students working toward a degree. Jewett at the University of Oregon says the school gives out 25 scholarships annually from a $1 million endowment from the Bernard Osher Foundation’s Osher Reentry Scholarship Program.

Falling Short

The 2008 Sloan Survey of Online Learning found that nearly 4 million students were enrolled in online courses in the fall of 2007. More than 80 percent of them were taking undergraduate courses, and 14 percent, like Earnest Loveless, were taking graduate courses.

Loveless started the road to his MBA at a traditional university in Charlotte, N.C. But after getting a new job that made attending classes at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte impossible, he started looking into other programs that would.

He soon enrolled at Strayer University, where he graduated last spring. “I couldn’t go to class during the day when they offered some of those that I needed,” says Loveless, 31, of leaving UNC-Charlotte to finish his degree at Strayer.

“It would have taken a lot longer for me to finish.” Loveless says while many people downplay the education that can be attained at a for-profit institution, he found classes at Strayer more beneficial than his time at UNC-Charlotte.

“I learned more through the heavy online curriculum,” he says. “It offers a lot of real world experience. And they’re taught a little differently where you digest more from the lectures.”

But, as with all things, students say there are areas where online courses fall short. “If you have an issue that you really don’t understand, you have nobody to go to,” Bembrey says. “You could go to the instructor if you were on a campus, and they could help explain it to you. In the online setting, they have tutors, but you have to go to them when it’s convenient for them. And that’s usually between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. That doesn’t help me at all.

“They have campuses everywhere, but you can’t get there … because you work.”

Problem or no, Bembrey pushed through classes filled with group assignments and unreachable teachers. She expects to graduate this summer.

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