As a 29-year-old junior at the University of Maine in Orono, Antonio Giacomuzzi keeps a pretty busy schedule. He cares for his 7-year-old son, works three jobs and commutes an hour each way to campus as he pursues his bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering.
"It's a lot of work. It's a lot of sleepless nights. You log a lot of hours, but I know in the end the reward is going to be so much more," he says.
Giacomuzzi enrolled in school here in 2011 and eventually chose mechanical engineering as his major because of the high income potential. To make his schedule work, he takes online courses when he can, which allows him to spend time with his family and study at night. But because many of his classes require labs, he also spends a great deal of time on campus.
"It's a lot of work ... but I know in the end the reward is going to be so much more."
- Antonio Giacomuzzi
It's a life he admits he wasn't ready for when he graduated from high school in 2002. "I probably would have been the guy jumping off the frat building. I'm not even kidding," he says.
Back then, he went to work doing masonry for his stepfather's business. He had considered college, but says his family was going through some challenges, so he decided to stay in town and help out. "I knew school was always going to be there, so it was more a matter of getting my family through hard times," he says.
Giacomuzzi learned the family business and, along the way, had a son and was faced with a decision: "Do I want to have a career, or do I want to do masonry the rest of my life?" he says, thinking back. It drove him to research his educational options and begin planning ahead for his future.
'Nontraditional' is becoming a tradition
Giacomuzzi says that as an older student, he feels more focused and dedicated to his coursework, and he often takes a leadership role in his classes. He says that finding other like-minded nontraditional students has really helped him adjust and find a home at school. In fact, he's president of the Commuter & Non-Traditional Student (CANS) Program and vice president of the Non-Traditional Students Association (NSA) at the University of Maine.
"You come in and you don't know these people, but you're all nontraditional students and you all find a way," he says. "It's pretty awesome."
In fact, as more adults are going back to college, so-called "nontraditional' learning is becoming anything but, according to Brian Fleming, a senior analyst focusing on online and continuing education with Eduventures, a Boston -based company specializing in higher education research and analysis.
"The nontraditional learning is becoming kind of the traditional," Fleming says. "It's sort of the new normal in a way." He attributes that, in part, to the complexity of the economic landscape, along with complex jobs and lives, complemented by increasing educational opportunities.
"If you have an 18-year-old that didn't go to college, didn't go to community college, didn't go to school, there certainly is an opening landscape of options available to them," he says.
Enrollment grows among older students
According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the percentage increase in the number of nontraditional students (meaning those 25 or older) enrolling in college is higher than the percentage increase of their younger counterparts. Between 2000 and 2011, the NCES reports, enrollment of students ages 25 and up increased by 41 percent, compared to a 35 percent increase those younger than 25.
Fleming says that in the past, education for nontraditional students was recognized for its accessibility and flexibility. Today, it's more than that. He says he's seeing programs where the curriculum is particularly well-designed, technology is sophisticated and schools are focusing more on student retention and success, in addition to potential cost savings. He also says that skills learned in school often align directly with employer needs.
"It's not that, 'I'm a nontraditional student and I want to know that I can finish my degree at my pace,'" Fleming explains. "People know that; that's not new for the market. What is new is I think these degrees are in some cases aligned with a distinct area an employer needs — that's very compelling in this market."
"The nontraditional learning is becoming kind of the traditional. It's sort of the new normal in a way."
- Brian Fleming
Educational options for nontraditional students
For nontraditional students, one of the best things about the increasing accessibility of education is the ability to get their degrees in a number of ways. Fleming highlighted the following options that are available to them:
There are varieties of online degrees, ranging from institutions that grant a degree through wholly online classes, to a flexible-format or blended learning experience, in which some of the content is online, while other requires a trip to campus. These degrees are offered by an array of institutions, including adult-serving, nontraditional schools and for-profit colleges, as well as a growing number of traditional colleges and universities.
Competency-based education programs
This is an emerging network of programs that are aligned with skills or outcomes a student or employer is looking for that will help an employee advance in his or her career. For example, Southern New Hampshire University works with employers in a sustained partnership to design academic programs around specific areas of skill or competency that a particular employer needs.
Rather than a formal degree, students can pursue stand-alone certificate programs, which can be centered on particular skills or subject matters. These require a shorter time to completion than a degree and are frequently less expensive. Network badging, digital credentialing and "nano-degrees" are other ways to demonstrate competencies and skills in certain areas.
Degrees from traditional brick-and-mortar institutions
For many students, it makes sense to attend a traditional university or community college and explore their options, such as evening and weekend classes, online classes and other choices.
When choosing a program that's the best fit for you, Fleming advises students to do some research and know their options — there are a lot of them, he admits.
"Don't be overwhelmed by those options. Understand that there really are a number of possibilities that someone could choose. Yes, you could go to a large for-profit college, probably tomorrow. There might also be a public university five minutes from your house that offers a very similar type of program," he says. "So know those different options, weigh them, make sure that you're finding the right option to fit your life."
Fleming says that in the future, he expects to see even more affordable, high-quality educational options, and he attributes the expanding choices, in part, to nontraditional learners.
"I don't think anybody's debating the fact that higher education right now is undergoing a massive transformation," he says. "I think that issues affecting adult learners in the nontraditional market are really what's driving it."
1. Brian Fleming, Senior Analyst for Online and Continuing Education at Eduventures, Interviewed by the author on Feb. 10, 2015
2. Antonio Giacomuzzi, Mechanical Engineering Student at the University of Maine, Interviewed by the author on Feb. 11, 2015
3. "Fast Facts: Enrollment," National Center for Education Statistics, Accessed Feb. 11, 2015, http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=98