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Going back to school? Nontraditional students face special hurdles

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Nontraditional students don't have to be as crazy as Pierce Hawthorne to have trouble adjust to collegeWhen most of us think of college students, we picture young adults between the ages of 18 and 23.

But according to the latest data from the National Center for Education Statistics, 21 percent of U.S. college students in the 2011 school year were over the age of 30. You’d think with that with so many older students, colleges would be focused on meeting their needs, but older students still face special challenges as they complete their degrees.

Teri Smith, a resident of Idaho Falls, Idaho, has a lot of experience as a nontraditional student. “I went back for my associate degree at age 26, took a few classes at age 33, and finally went back full-time at age 48,” she says. “I finally graduated with a bachelor degree at age 50.”

Challenges facing nontraditional college students

Going back to school as a nontraditional student came with challenges she didn’t experience when she first went to college at age 18.

“You can’t do all-night cramming sessions, and your memory isn’t what it used to be,” Smith says.

It was also sometimes difficult to meet with her younger fellow students to complete group projects. She lives half an hour away from the school she attended, BYU-Idaho.

“My partners wanted to meet at the library at 9 p.m., but I wasn’t driving all the way back up there at that time of night!” she says.

And that’s not all. Smith found that her obligations as a mother and grandmother often interfered with her efforts to finish her bachelor degree. “When I went back at age 26, I was pregnant and had two kids,” she says. “That was hard, but it was still harder when I decided to finish my degree later on. Instead of just having younger kids, I had sons- and daughters-in-law, and grandkids, and so many other things in my life.” Fitting in homework and class time proved difficult — especially since she had a daily commute of an hour round-trip.

Smith also struggled sometimes with the social aspects of returning to school as a nontraditional student. “A lot of the activities are geared toward younger, traditional students,” she says. Smith found it irksome that she had to attend new-student orientation, and decided to bring her husband for company. There was a barbecue offered, so they thought they could at least get a free lunch out of the day.

“You had to complete an obstacle course to get the free lunch,” Smith says. “I was almost 50, and my husband 51. We weren’t going to complete an obstacle course with a bunch of teenage co-eds!”

They went to Wendy’s instead.

Activities like parents’ day were also somewhat awkward. Smith decided to turn the tables a little bit and invite her daughter to join her in class that day. And, of course, the fact that she was 30 years older than many of her fellow students was something that created a barrier almost every day.

Smith also had to learn the technology. “Many schools have online components now, even if it’s just using a system like Blackboard or Canvas,” she says. “I had to learn the tech. It was not as intuitive for me as it was for most of my classmates.”

Financial aid still a struggle

Smith was similar to other students in one way, though: having to navigate the complex financial aid system.

“I had to take out student loans,” she says. “I didn’t qualify for grants, though, since my husband has long been established in his career, and we made too much money.”

Nontraditional students can apply for federal student aid via the FAFSA, just like any other student. However, it might be tougher to get scholarships and other types of financial aid as a nontraditional student.

In the end, though, Smith is proud that she finally finished her degree.

“I really value my degree,” she says. “There was a real personal cost that comes with finishing when you have already lived so much of your life. I had to sacrifice other things to do it. I think I value it so much more than I would have had I got my degree at a younger age.”

What do you think? Have you ever been back to school as a nontraditional student? Did you feel like you were at a disadvantage compared to younger students?

(Photo: NBC)

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