BACK ON CAMPUS: AS MORE ADULTS RETURN TO SCHOOL, COLLEGES STRIVE TO MEET THE NEEDS OF NONTRADITIONAL STUDENTS WITH EXPANDED SCHEDULES AND DAY CARE.
The first day of a required psychology class. Barbara Reynolds remembers it well: Her professor wanted students to introduce themselves to the class. The first girl to make an introduction performed a rap song.
Reynolds broke out in hives."I don't even like rap," she said. "And I was thinking, What can I say about myself? That I'm a divorced mom of three and on welfare?"
Reynolds, now 43, was a nontraditional student returning to college 20 years after her high school graduation. The youthful activity of a typical college campus was not her idea of fun.
"I was so afraid. Leaving my kids in day care was a major fear," she said. "I just didn't know if I could do it."
But she wanted to get off welfare, get a good job and give herself and her children a better life. When she hooked up with the Job Training Parnership Act, Reynolds' counselor convinced her that a college education was the key to that life. Reynolds began to investigate the University of Utah and Salt Lake Community College as she adjusted to the idea of college.
"I went up to the U. to the Women's Resource Center to talk to them," said Reynolds. "They told me just to walk around the campuses and feel them out. I did, and I knew I wasn't ready for the U. I was so overwhelmed. I just kept thinking, I can't do this."
She started at the community college, and though the classes were smaller and the campus had an onsite day-care center, she still wasn't convinced that school was the answer.
"I began to understand why some people leave college with only nine credit hours left before graduation," she said.
However, Reynolds became increasingly aware that she was not the only "older" student on campus. In fact, adults are returning to college in droves, and they are changing the way Utah colleges look, feel and operate.
The typical college student is no longer a fresh and sassy 20-year-old. Today, Utah colleges are filled with moms, dads and grandparents. Roughly 40 percent of Utah's college students are older than 25. Nationally, the fastest-growing group of students is those age 35 and older.
Only 20 percent of college students nationally are full time, in residence and younger than 22 years old, according to the National Center for Educational Studies and the Office of Adult Learning.
Research suggests the phenomenon is the culmination of several growing trends nationally. Not only are more adults going back to school, but younger students are taking longer to get a degree. Consequently, the average age of Utah's college student is 25 - and rising.
According to Ray Sudweeks, research analyst for the Utah System of Higher Education, the majority of these nontraditional students are women.
"There are more women in the workplace today, and the wage ratio for women is double if you've gone to college," he said.
"Nationwide, there are far more women in college than men. In Utah, that's not the case. Fewer women enroll in college after high school, and even fewer graduate," said Sudweeks.
Women in Utah, he said, are more likely to get married young and drop out of college. Often, they come back years later, when kids are grown or they are forced to get a job and support a family.
Mary Hyland works with a lot of women who return to school after long absences. As director of transfer services at Westminster College, she helps them understand the courses they need and how to transfer credits from other schools.
"A lot more single women are discovering the importance of a degree in the work force," she said. "And a lot of women are realizing the importance of a degree for themselves."
Sudweeks said the median salary for any person with a college degree today is significantly more than for a person with a high school diploma. The difference between the two has grown greatly since 1970. Twenty years ago, having a degree didn't make as much difference in pay.
Many adults trained in labor-oriented fields have returned to college to learn new technologies, said Sudweeks. The computer age has permanently altered the workplace, and many people have made career switches that require more education.
The economic impact of technological change has made higher education necessary, said Sudweeks. "Especially in business fields, you just have to know more than you used to."
As more adults return to school, Sudweeks said, younger students take longer to get degrees. High school students bypass immediate college entrance for work and travel opportunities.
The pressure that once drove every hard-working young student directly through school and on to work or graduate school has faded. Students today take time off to "find themselves."
Factors specific to Utah have also affected statistics. For Utah students, college is often interrupted by a two-year LDS mission. Many men don't start their college careers until 21 or 22.
This year's "Assessment and Accountability Report of the Utah System of Higher Education" found that students take five to seven years to attain a degree, and adult students usually take six to eight years.
Financing school is a formidable challenge to students of all ages. Changes in financial aid requirements have made it more difficult for independent students to receive grants, and programs like the Job Training Partnership Act that helped put Barbara Reynolds through college suffer from congressional budget cuts.
Information published in "The Condition of Education 1994" shows 47 percent of full-time college students work through school. Sudweeks said that percentage has increased dramatically over the years. Employed students generally take longer to finish school, especially those who work full time.
The term "nontraditional student" has been used for several years to categorize those students for whom school is not their No. 1 priority. Most school administrations restrict the term to students who register for college for the first time seven or more years after high school graduation.
But many Utah students have found that definition inadequate. Typically, a student feels nontraditional if he or she is older than 25 or has a spouse, child or a full-time job. Together, those students may account for more than 60 percent of college students in Utah.
The assessment and accountability report, presented recently to the Utah Board of Regents, said "today's student is an adult living in an adult world and managing multiple responsibilities and roles."
At the U., the state's largest public university, 33 percent of the student body works more than 31 hours a week. Of undergraduates alone, nearly 30 percent are married, and 25 percent have one child at least.
Clearly, the needs of university students change in light of such statistics. When nearly a third of the student body has children, day care is suddenly an important issue. And similarly, students with full-time jobs have strict time constraints. Demands for night and weekend classes increase every year.
David Graves, a senior at the U., is 33 and a single father of four young children. He had been selling stock since he graduated from high school. When the market crashed several years ago, he decided it was time to switch gears.
Graves is the perfect definition of a nontraditional student. He enrolled in college for the first time at age 29. And, as with many nontraditional students, the 10-year absence from academia made adjusting difficult.
"When I first came to the U., it was frightening," said Graves. "There were no resources. You either assimilated or died. I assimilated. I got in and got accepted into the honors program. But a lot of students don't want to assimilate."
Many students can't assimilate. Students with jobs, kids and spouses can't always put school in a position of top priority. Morning classes, daytime office hours and professors' erratic consultation hours are hard to match with school-age kids or daytime jobs.
The sheer size of the campus can be intimidating to adult students who are unfamiliar with the hallowed halls of higher education and the youthful chatter that fills them. Schools as big as Weber State University and the U. are cold and confusing to the already nervous nontraditional student.
Graves is now chairman of the U.'s Nontraditional Students Association, a group that provides support and advice for those nervous nontraditional students. The group lobbies the U.'s administration for extended office hours, more night classes and increased services for adult students - considerations Graves thinks the U. is sometimes reluctant to provide.
The group has also focused efforts on child care and helped create the Child Care Coordinating Center that operates full time on campus. Heidi Crocheron, director of the center, said she provides information about the U.'s child-care options as well other area day-care services.
Though current programs at the U. serve approximately 350 children on campus, Crocheron said there is still a "tremendous need" for care. The U.'s child care task force conducted an informal survey last year and "conservatively estimated a need for child care at about 3,000 to 4,000 children," she said.
Affordable child care is especially difficult for students to find. Crocheron said a new program, KinderCare At Work, opens next fall at the U. and will take 200 more children but will be "clearly more affordable for faculty and staff" than students.
Crocheron believes the issue is of major importance statewide, citing increasing efforts at SLCC and WSU to provide more child-care facilities. "They're realizing they have to do more to meet the needs of nontraditional students. The population is changing."
Patricia Crane, assistant commissioner of the state Board of Regents, said seven of the nine public universities and colleges in Utah have some form of day care. Dixie College and Southern Utah University are working to develop some child-care resources.
And while bigger schools like the U. are desperately trying to accommodate those changing needs, community colleges and smaller schools seem to attract the older students.
Dana Tumpowsky, director of public relations at Westminster, said a smaller school has a little more flexibility when it comes to meeting different student needs. Westminster's high average age - 28 - and high percentage of female students - 63 percent - attest to the idea that a small school is indeed more attractive to nontraditional students.
Many students find comfort in smaller schools with less intimidating atmospheres. But even nontraditional students in small schools battle big-school problems.
Sean Tingey may be the typical-looking 19-year-old student at Southern Utah University. But, in addition to his full load at school, he works full time at Matrix Marketing and supports a wife and child.
Tingey is not considered a nontraditional student by most administrative definitions and, because he is 19, he is ineligible for nontraditional student scholarships.
As the nontraditional student representative in SUU student government, Tingey says he's had a hard time reconciling his age to the typical image of a nontraditional student. But he believes he faces the same challenges as a married father that many older students face.
"I feel the job is the same regardless of my age," he said. "Having a child or spouse or job sets you apart from a traditional student."
Especially at SUU, Tingey says, a nontraditional student must overcome a lot of obstacles. The absence of child care on campus is a big problem for nontraditional students, and he said the day-care system in Cedar City is "inadequate."
"Programs like KinderCare - the program the U. will start next year - won't even look at us," said Tingey. "SUU is too small."
Meeting such a wide range of needs is a formidable challenge for universities and colleges entrenched in traditions. Still, almost every school in the state recognizes the growing number of adult students and attempts to provide more services to a growing population of adults.
State-sponsored and school-sponsored organizations help nontraditional students "assimilate" to college life. SLCC provides support and counseling services for adult students, and the Redwood Campus houses a Turning Point office.
Turning Point is a state-sponsored program offering counseling and financial aid to single parents, displaced homemakers and pregnant women. The program has several offices statewide, including one at Utah Valley Community College, Dixie College and SUU.
SLCC has also created a weekend class schedule for busy students. Students can obtain associate degrees in business or general studies just by taking classes on Fridays and Saturdays.
Westminster has a full schedule of evening classes. All required liberal-education courses are available at night, and students can obtain a bachelor's degree in business, social science, computer science or accounting through night courses.
"Our evening programs are full. The parking lot at night has just as many cars as it does during the day," said Hyland.
Johna Brems, a 35-year-old junior at Westminster, takes two night classes. During the day, she works full time in a small retail store. In the remainder of her spare time, she takes care of her 2-year-old son, Stefan.
But Brems is one of the lucky ones. Her husband has supported her in her efforts to earn a degree in communications. "He's mainly the reason I'm able to do this," she said.
Brems also has a nanny. She couldn't find a day-care program that could meet her needs.
Like most nontraditional students, Brems agrees that going back to school is hard. It means adding homework, exams, books and papers to kids, bills, cooking, cleaning and working. But despite the challenges and difficulties of returning to campus, adult students say the degree at the end of the road is worth the bumpy ride.
Now, Barbara Reynolds works with the State Housing Authority in providing self-sufficiency counseling to housing clients. She refers them to jobs, training programs and school programs. But even now, she sometimes can't believe she has a degree.
After spending two years at SLCC, Reynolds transferred her credits to the U. The transition was less difficult after her introductory years at the community college. She felt a little more "seasoned." Still, she said almost every day of her four years in school was overwhelmingly difficult.
But she did it. In June 1994, she was awarded a degree in human development and family studies. Graduation day was one of the best days of her life.
"It felt so odd to be in a cap and gown," she said. "I went to both ceremonies - at SLCC and the U. I guess I could have skipped them, but I worked hard for that degree."
And, like that frightening day in a now-distant psychology class, she remembers graduation at the U.'s Huntsman Center well: Her family and kids came to cheer her on as she was handed her degree.
"I was so proud of myself," she said. "I set an example for my kids, too. I want them to see that, yeah, it's hard, but you put one foot in front of the other and it can happen."
Now, Reynolds plans to send all three of her children to college. She has even thought about going back to school for a master's degree.
"When I think that, part of me thinks, Are you crazy? But now, I know I can do it. I believe in education. Getting my bachelor's took everything I had - but it was worth it. I know I really did something. It was hard, but I did it."
Utah college profile: Age Comparison
Students Student 25 and
Age Enrollment Older
University of Utah 24.8 26,914 11,955
Brigham Young University 23 28,213 3,667
Weber State University 25 15,045 5,941
Utah State University 24 20,371 8,118
Southern Utah University 21.8 5,026 1,501
College of Eastern Utah 24 3,132 1,022
Salt Lake Community College 26 19,440 8,208
Utah Valley State College 23.7 13,293 3,259
Westminster College 28 2,100 896
Snow College 21 2,996 249
Dixie College 22 4,374 790