Maureen Harke took her first college class at age 18. As a freshman at Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, Harke spent her off-campus hours working two part-time jobs, helping care for six younger siblings and trying to figure out a plan for the future. She dropped out after three semesters, but returned to CMU nearly two decades later at age 37, with a new drive to earn her degree.
"I remember walking to my first class. It was a Psych 100 class. I walked in, and it was very obvious that I was much older …," she says. "In many ways — physically, age-wise — I didn't fit in. I was very different than my classmates; however, I had a different perspective at that point. I knew what the world had to offer if I didn't have a college degree. … Quitting wasn't an option."
Nontraditional students face unique challenges
Harke may have felt out of place, but she's actually in the new majority. While college campuses were once exclusively populated by freshly minted high school grads, traditional-aged students attending a four-year public or nonprofit school full time only make up about 29 percent of the total college population, according to The Wall Street Journal's analysis of a Department of Education data. Nearly 40 percent of college students these days are over age 25, reports the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, and many are like Harke — working full-time and trying to balance classes and family responsibilities.
Some schools are better at serving the needs of adult students than others. Online and hybrid programs, from the liberal arts to business administration degrees, abound, and working adults can mold these around their already-packed schedules. But older students who haven't taken a class for years — or sometimes decades — may need more than just flexibility. The challenges of balancing work and family along with the financial burden of returning to school account for more than half of all nontraditional dropouts, according to research from the academic coaching service InsideTrack. Only about 7 percent drop out because of academic challenges alone.
The value of institutional support
Carol Moran-Brown is the director of Champlain College's Single Parent Program, an initiative that offers advising, tutoring, counseling, social support and financial assistance to single student-parents. She credits the program's strong emphasis on personalized case management and the resources it devotes to helping students handle unexpected situations as two primary reasons why a large percentage of program enrollees make it to graduation.
"Let's say [a student's] day care closes, or let's say their child is deathly ill and the student's panicked because she's going to miss a week's worth of classes. Our case managers can help them either by helping them find another day care center, helping to talk them through how to manage being absent, being in contact with the professor, getting notes from a friend, keeping up with the work as best they're able," Moran-Brown says. "[We're] helping them to turn what could be a terrible crisis into something that becomes more manageable."
Seeking out colleges that have resources specifically for nontraditional students — whether those are subsidized child care centers, scholarships for working adults, a representative who can help navigate educational benefits for veterans, or social groups for older students — can mean the difference between graduating and dropping out when times get tough.
If you're eyeing a brick-and-mortar degree program, head to campus and find those nontraditional student support centers before applying, says Susan Albertine, vice-president of the Office of Diversity, Equity and Student Success for the Association of American Colleges and Universities.
"The institutions that are really doing a good job are making their campuses friendly to returning adults, she says. "They'll have centers, physical spaces for them to go to. If you can't find one of those spaces on campus, you probably don't want to go there."
Finding success as a returning student
Erica Woods-Warrior adds that returning students should also seek out institutions that are a "best fit" for their lifestyle, schedule and personal goals, as well as those that are open about their job placement rates and offer strong academic advising.
"I've taught at three universities in my career, and there are countless examples I could give you of students who find out the month of graduation that they're missing two courses," she says. "… Be proactive in your choice of institution, be proactive in your search for scholarships and funding, and be proactive in your advising. You can't always wait for the adviser to come to you."
Maureen Harke credits institutional support as the reason why she made it through undergrad and is currently a year away from earning her Ph.D. in experimental psychology. One year into her bachelor's degree, Harke was admitted into the McNair Scholars Program, an initiative that provides research, career, financial and mentoring support to first-generation college students in need and to those from historically underrepresented demographics. The McNair support, combined with what she received from Central Michigan University and her family, helped Harke graduate, get into grad school and land a job as an associate director of the CMU Honors Program while she pursues her doctorate.
"It's all been worth it. I come to work excited. I love what I do," she says. "… I have not spent a day at work at CMU feeling unfulfilled since I started."
Susan Albertine, Vice President of the Office of Diversity, Equity and Student Success for the Association of American Colleges and Universities, Interviewed by the author on July 17, 2014
"Number of the Week: 'Non-Traditional' Students Are Majority on College Campuses," Ben Casselman, The Wall Street Journal, July 6, 2013,
Maureen Harke, McNair Scholar and Ph.D. Student at Central Michigan University, Interviewed by the author on July 18, 2014
"Difficulty Managing Commitments Is Top Reason Adult College Students Drop Out," InsideTrack, Feb. 9, 2011,
About the Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program, McNair Scholars,
Carol Moran-Brown, Champlain College Single Parents Program Director, Interviewed by the author on July 18, 2014
"More Than One-Third of College Students Are Over 25," National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, April 19, 2012, http://www.studentclearinghouse.org/about/media_center/press_releases/files/release_2012-04-19.pdf