At an elementary school named for American television technology pioneer Philo T. Farnsworth, RayShell Shelden helps students with intellectual disabilities tackle learning.

Shelden, a paraeducator for Utah’s Granite School District, is also a mom and a college student who is working toward her bachelor’s degree in special education from Western Governors University.

She fits in her studies around her work schedule and family life, sometimes working on her schoolwork until 1 a.m. It’s a grind, but Shelden is on track to graduate in December.

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“It’s been really hard for me. Sometimes I break down and I’m like, ‘I can’t do it.’ Then I get over that hurdle and I’m like, ‘Wow, I’m here. I’m almost to my goals.’ Then I have another goal, continuing to get my master’s. I want to continue with my education,” she said.

Shelden had some college credits but no degree. By some estimates, 370,000 Utahns are in the same boat, although 2019 census data says the number may be closer to 470,000 for adults age 25 and older.

Boosting potential

When Rep. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara, looks at those numbers, he sees lost human potential. He sees a population segment whose quality of life would profoundly benefit from completion of their college degrees, particularly in professions that are in high demand.

He sees a workforce that needs more well-educated teachers, nurses and tech workers.

That’s why Snow sponsored legislation in this year’s Legislature to create a state-funded grant program for adult learners to make it easier for them to complete college degrees and certificate programs.

The bill won final approval this week, passing by overwhelming margins in both legislative houses. The bill now heads to the Gov. Spencer Cox’s desk where he can sign it into law, allow it to become law without his signature or veto it.

It is estimated nationally that 10% of the “some college, no degree” population has high potential to attain a credential, according to a 2019 National Student Clearinghouse report.

HB328 will create a grant program to provide financial assistance to students who are at least 26 years old, financially needy and are pursuing an online degree or certificate in a field with an industry need.

The program will prioritize grants to students from rural areas, minority students, low-income students and first-generation college students. Lawmakers appropriated $1 million ongoing to the program.

Photo Illustration by Alex Cochran

The grant program will be overseen by the Utah System of Higher Education so it is unclear how large individual grants will be or how many could be extended. Likely, the grants will be awarded as “last dollars in” after federal financial aid.

Removing the barrier — money

Many adult learners are highly motivated to complete their degrees, but the cost of returning to school is an impediment for many who have other obligations and responsibilities. Snow hopes the grant program will open Utahns’ eyes to the possibilities.

“This is not just the financial help, which is the biggest part of it, but sometimes it’s just some hope that says, ‘There may be a way that I could do this,’ ” he said.

When a parent completes a certificate program or a college degree, it can help tee up the expectation that future generations will complete postsecondary education as well. Snow knows this from personal experience.

His wife, Sheryl, returned to college as an adult learner after supporting him while he earned his undergraduate and law degrees.

For three consecutive summers, the couple split their children between them so she could attend college classes at BYU working toward her degree while he worked and cared for the rest of the kids in St. George.

“I still remember bringing all of our six children to BYU graduation,” he said. He wanted their children there “to see Mom do this because it was a big deal.” She became a high school choir teacher and retired last year.

“It’s not just the degree and it’s not just improving the job, but there’s something generational about getting that and being able to set the example for your children and grandchildren,” he said.

Snow said his wife’s graduation made a big impression of each of their children. They understood, “without me pressuring them, that it was important to get their higher education degrees.”

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HB328 is specifically for adult learners who are pursuing an online degree or certificate in fields with high workforce needs such as high tech, nursing or teaching. Online education is accessible anywhere there is a reliable internet connection, so the grant program could help students wherever they live.

If there’s any silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that colleges and universities are offering more online courses than ever before so students’ options have vastly expanded, Snow. The instruction can be offered by any higher education institution capable of delivering that instruction, he said.

In Shelden’s case, Western Governors University’s online platform and experience with students who are working adults has made it possible for her to seek a bachelor’s degree.

Because she attends school from home, her three children have witnessed her struggles and her successes, which helps her eldest daughter to dig deeper when she is having a hard time with school because she has her mom’s example.

Shelden, who was a single mom until about five years ago when she got married and gained a “bonus daughter,” said her plans to attend college were also upended because she had to take care of her grandfather after he broke his hip.

She said she was always interested in working with children, possibly as a nurse or a teacher.

Her eldest daughter was born prematurely at 32 weeks gestation. When she started school, she struggled with what Shelden now knows is anxiety and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

“Something was off and I wasn’t getting the help from the teachers to try to figure out what we could do to help her,” Shelden said, explaining it was one reason she decided to seek a special education degree.

“I wanted to be that teacher for other students who need that support,” she said.

RayShell Shelden, a paraeducator who works with special education students at Philo T. Farnsworth Elementary School in West Valley City, poses for a photo at the school on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021. | Steve Griffin, Deseret News

When Shelden started working for the Granite School District as a paraprofessional assisting a licensed special education teacher, the teacher, who recognized her potential, asked, “Why aren’t you a teacher? What’s going on?”

The teacher told her about WGU because she knew other graduates of its education programs, and Shelden took a leap of faith and enrolled about three years ago.

Shelden said attending school online “works better with my schedule because I work. I have kids,” she said.

“I would never try another school. It’s amazing. I love the ability to work at my own pace and still be with my kids.”

Shelden said the grant program would help other people like her who have goals, but adult responsibilities and financial obligations often get in the way.

“We live in a world full of stress and anxiety with everything going on. The grant would help ease that stress, anxiety, even a little bit and make it so these adult learners keep continuing to go school and get their degrees,” she said.

Nina Barnes, vice chairwoman of the Utah Board of Higher Education, the governing board that oversees Utah’s 16 public colleges and universities, said Utah college students are two-thirds more likely to be married and to have children than the national average.

“These commitments make huge barriers in their completion,” Barnes said, particularly women who leave school to take care of their families. Utah’s number of adults with some college and no degree leads the nation,” Barnes said at a recent legislative meeting.

HB328 could make a difference for many adult learners whose college experiences were interrupted. Many of them are women, and it is highly important that they complete their degrees or certificate programs because 79% of Utah women, at some point, enter the workforce, she said.

Reaping a return

Regardless of the reasons they didn’t complete college in previous attempts, the state made an investment in them the first time they attempted, Barnes said. “But the investment doesn’t pay back until they get into those high-paying jobs.”

Even a one-year certificate program can “lead to a 42% increase in wage return for them,” Barnes said.

“We know we have a high percentage of Utah women who will be single and we know that education is generational, and that we need these educational skills to get them back in the pipeline. The chances and likelihood of children going to college when a mother is educated and prepared to be in the workforce is significant,” she said.

Paul Mero, Western Governors University’s director of government relations for its West region, which includes Utah, said the typical WGU student is 37 years old and female.

“Most of the time they’re married. But there’s a lot of single women, whether they’re married or single, most have children. Eighty-five percent are working, 75% full time. They are trying just to get a leg up, they’re trying to get that little extra boost that will give them another $20,000 a year because now they have whatever degree or a new skill set,” he said.

WGU serves 134,000 students and is one of the largest nonprofit online universities in the country. Seven out of 10 of its students come from underserved populations.

“That’s rural, low-income, minority or first-generation college students,” Mero said.

“If you think about that for a second, that’s staggering. Seventy percent of our 134,000 students are coming from underserved populations who are going to graduate,” he said.

Most working adults with families have ties to to their communities, which means “they’re not going to get a diploma or degree and move out of state. They’ve already have their roots in these communities in Utah. They’re not going to get a degree and then decide, ‘I have to go backpacking in Europe for a while until I can find myself.’

“They have children. They’re working full time. They just want another 20 grand a year just to get to that living wage ability, to live and enjoy life and not to think, ‘Can I go to Walmart and buy socks for my kids or do I have to trade off internet service versus formula for my kid or something else.’”

Snow said while the adult learner is WGU’s market niche, the grant program will be open to eligible students who attend any qualifying college or university.

RayShell Shelden, a paraeducator who works with special education students at Philo T. Farnsworth Elementary School in West Valley City, walks with her fourth grade daughter, Karma, as they head home after school on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021. | Steve Griffin, Deseret News