Nationwide rise of nontraditional students changing higher education

Eastern Iowa colleges, universities take note, make adjustments after enrollment transition

George Ford
Published: December 16 2012 | 7:00 am - Updated: 1 April 2014 | 3:23 am in

When Cindy Kudrna attends her weekly five-hour class at Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids, she has to do more than complete her homework and commute from her home in Delhi.

Kudrna, 42, is finance director for the city of Hiawatha. She's also a single mom with a 17-year-old daughter involved in high school basketball, volleyball and track.

Welcome to the world of a "nontraditional" student, the fastest-growing population on U.S. college and university campuses.

There are 17.6 million undergraduates nationwide this semester, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Thirty-eight percent of those enrolled in colleges and universities are over the age of 25, and 25 percent are over 30.

The share of all students who are over age 25 is projected to increase another 23 percent by 2019.

"When I came to Kirkwood eight years ago, one in every four students was nontraditional," said Mark Ash, adult admission adviser at Kirkwood Community College. "Today, that has grown to one in every three students, and I have no reason to believe that trend will change in future years."

Kirkwood, Mount Mercy and many other Iowa community colleges and universities are gearing up as more adults want to increase their educational credentials, pursue new careers due to downsizing or layoffs, or are returning from military service.

"It has worked for me because my classes are one night a week, and I am able to determine what nights I can study and what nights I have to accommodate my daughter's schedule and my work schedule," Kudrna said.

"We have city council meetings twice a month and sometimes I have to miss a meeting. That's when school comes first and the city staff has been very understanding.

"Hiawatha has a tuition program and they're paying for my tuition at Mount Mercy."

Kudrna has worked in a variety of occupations, including dental hygienist, manufacturing and Delhi city clerk. She earned an associate degree in finance from Kirkwood after joining the city of Hiawatha as finance director.

"I always wanted to get a degree, so I checked into Kirkwood," Kudrna said. "I was a student at Kirkwood for three years to get my two-year degree.

"I decided to pursue my bachelors degree at Mount Mercy because I saw other people here were able to do it. I felt that being able to take one class a week for five weeks and complete a four-year degree in five years was very reasonable."

Colette Atkins, assistant dean of accelerated programs at Mount Mercy, said post-secondary schools are realizing that nontraditional or adult students have special needs that prevent them from earning a degree in a traditional college setting.

"It's not fair to expect an adult student who works to come to class during the day," Atkins said. "It's not fair to expect them to sit in class for a semester at a time to complete course work when they are working and raising children.

"If we did that, they would either lose their motivation and drop out, or it would take them 15 years to complete a four-year degree. That is an unreasonable expectation."

Atkins said research has shown that nontraditional or adult students learn differently from their traditional student peers who are age 18 through 21.

"They have life experiences, or a 'coat rack,' if you will, that they can hang the information on that they've learned in a classroom," Atkins said. "Mount Mercy has recognized those challenges and created an accelerated program that's specifically designed for the returning adult student. The classes meet at night for four hours, and they are five-week courses that students take one at a time.

"Adult students are intrinsically motivated. They can focus on that topic, enjoy working on it and then move on to the next topic."

After losing several jobs to corporate downsizing, Sue Cook of Cedar Rapids decided it was time to return to the classroom to update her credentials and skills.

"I have a master's degree in hearing-impaired education, but I haven't taught for awhile," said Cook, 54. "I needed to update my teaching certificate.

"I wanted to build on my hearing-impaired education, so I enrolled in the sign language interpretive program. There's only one other program in the state for that.

"I'm also taking some business and entrepreneurship classes. When I get out of school in May, I will have a variety of options available to me."

Ash said Cook is typical of the nontraditional student population at Kirkwood. He said flexibility is key to serving students like Cook who are working and pursuing their education.

"We can quickly make an adult comfortable with our tuition, which is the lowest of any college in Iowa, and the fact that we offer over 100 different programs," Ash said. "We also have to make it convenient for them without turning their life upside down and inside out.

"That's why more colleges like Kirkwood and Mount Mercy are offering accelerated programs morning, noon and evening. There are so many ways that a successful college makes it convenient for adult student to get their product."

Ash and Atkins said online classes are growing in importance for nontraditional students. But they also cautioned that computers can be daunting for older students who have not grown up using them.

"We really have two different dynamics when it comes to using computers," Atkins said. "Students who are 30 years of age and younger are comfortable with them, whereas those over 35 prefer face-to-face contact with their instructors.

"We're going to see that change over time."

Regardless of whether nontraditional students take their classes on campus or online, Ash believes colleges must be willing to work with students where possible to accommodate their work and life schedules.

"We can't force fit it," he said. "We've got to be flexible and nimble, realizing that the days are gone when students had the luxury of going to school and not having to work."

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