Back to School: Continuing Education for Adults

    Local schools give nontraditional students the tools to succeed

    Adult learners—typically defined as students who are 25 and older, who are commuting at least 10 miles to campus, attending school part-time or full-time, retired or working, with or without children, married, single or divorced—come from all walks of life. They’re men and women, old and young. They bring years of experience and a different perspective to the club. And they’re returning to school in record numbers.

    Why the Increase in Demand?

    Non-traditional students are returning to school for a number of reasons. They could be finishing a degree they started long ago, updating their skills in a competitive workplace, pursuing a passion now that the kids are out of the house, or looking to find a new way to make a living after a layoff.

    Despite the varied reasons why they’re registering for classes, there is a common thread throughout this demographic: adult learners are motivated and ready to learn.

    One of the largest on-campus adult learning communities in the state can be found at Augsburg College, with nearly 2,000 adult learners enrolled in undergraduate and graduate programs. Carrie Carroll, assistant vice president of admissions, has noticed a steady increase in students pursuing graduate degrees—mainly for a career change or career advancement. Education and social work were two fields of study that received record applications at Augsburg last year, with other areas of interest including undergraduate and MBA business programs.

    “In today’s economy, people with a bachelor’s degree have a lower unemployment rate,” Carroll points out. “People without a degree are feeling the strain in trying to gain or keep employment.”

    Keys to Success

    Many colleges and universities recognize the unique needs of adult learners through evening and weekend programs, cohorts, degree completion programs (at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota students can take previous credits and life experiences and apply them towards the completion of their bachelor’s degree), and online courses.

    A new degree created specifically for adult learners at St. Cloud State University is the bachelor of elective studies, offered both online and evenings.

    “This degree was designed so that adults can create their own program and outline a specific career path, then determine the kind of courses they need to complete that,” explains John Burgeson, dean of continuing studies at St. Cloud State. “A lot of students come in and tell us that if it weren’t for the bachelor of elective studies, they couldn’t have come back to college.”

    Also popular with adult students at St. Cloud State: the MBA evening program at St. Cloud’s Maple Grove site, certification programs for teachers, and the availability of over 250 online courses.

    At The Art Institutes International Minnesota (AII), a variety of support services are included with tuition. Two of the most popular are the Career Services Department, assisting students with their job search, and the Academic Achievement Center, helping students with tutorial services taught by faculty and advanced students, says Anj Kozel, director of communications. Adult learners at AII tend to migrate to programs in web design and interactive media, interior design, graphic design, and culinary arts.

    Just Do It

    Even with support services in place, some nontraditional students are anxious about returning to school. They might worry about being able to keep up with technology, or feel uncomfortable with their younger classmates. After all, the life of an 18-year-old is dramatically different from the life of a 40-year-old.

    There will be times when the adult learner will have to balance schoolwork with family and full-time job obligations, but adults—more than any other student—are heading into the situation well equipped to handle the difficulties of time-management Like a fine wine, the maturity of adult students can be their best asset as they re-enter the academic world.

    We can be our own worst enemy when we let self-imposed barriers and obstacles stand in the way of achieving our dreams.

    “The first step can be the hardest,” Carroll says. “Ask questions, share your concerns, and understand that there are people to help you along the way. Admissions will assist you in applying to the college, Financial Aid will assist you with how you will pay for college, and professors and fellow students will motivate and inspire you.”

    Yasin Alsaidi, director of admission for the Schools of Graduate and Professional Programs – Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota, encourages adult learners to establish a support community to avoid feeling overwhelmed. “Family, friends, colleagues, and especially classmates can help you through the initial period of adjustment until it becomes routine. Before you know it, you’ll have a semester behind you and you’ll be dealing better with the workload.”

    And don’t let the cost of school intimidate you, Kozel says. While cost is definitely a factor, it shouldn’t be a deterrent. “Some adults think that going back to college is taking steps backwards; it’s not,” Kozel says. “Going back to school is a reinvestment in your future.”