Returning students face challenges, advantages

Non-traditional students bring a different view to the classroom.

Hailey Colwell

Jean Chapdelaine left college in the late 1990s because she had to work.

She’s been working constantly since, even after re-enrolling at the University of Minnesota 16 years later so she could move to the executive level at her workplace.

Students who choose to go back to college after years in the workforce often balance full-time jobs, parenting or other obligations with their class schedule. And it can be difficult to navigate resources when deciding whether to re-enroll, according to a national report released this month.

Despite the barriers nontraditional students face in balancing obligations, they come back to school with real-world experience that benefits them in the classroom.

For John Colosey, having five children and a full-time job made it difficult to re-enroll in college, something he’d wanted to do for about 15 years.

“You get into a rut with anything at home,” he said, and it can be hard to make lifestyle changes after falling into a routine.

After his kids started going off to college, Colosey said, he decided to re-enroll at the University to “practice what I preached about how important an education was.”

A Nov. 4 report from Public Agenda found that nontraditional students aren’t always as informed as they could be when choosing a college.

Of respondents, 47 percent said a college’s graduation rate is an “essential” part of the decision-making process. And only 18 percent said they used an interactive website to compare colleges.

“When you think about a traditional junior in high school, they’re getting inundated with college brochures. Their peer group, for the most part, everyone’s talking about college, [and] their parents are there to help them in the selection process,” said Jason Jacobson, director of individualized programs in the College of Continuing Education.

Starting a college search online can be overwhelming, said Colosey, who graduated from CCE’s multidisciplinary studies program in May.

“There’s so much information out there, it’s hard to go through it,” he said.

Balancing a degree program with other commitments is a common priority for nontraditional students, but they often set more specific career goals than traditional students, Jacobson said.

While traditional students might choose broader majors and change them multiple times before graduating, Jacobson said, students returning to the University are likely to pursue degrees more relevant to their immediate career objectives.

The Public Agenda report also said more than half of adults surveyed didn’t really know the difference between a nonprofit and a for-profit university.

But some University students were more informed in their choices than the average survey respondent.

Colosey said he researched for-profit schools but felt more comfortable pursing a University degree because he sees it as more legitimate.

Chapdelaine said she wanted the credibility of a University degree so she could go on to get a master’s degree in business administration.

Beginning again

Even at an accredited institution like the University, it can be challenging for nontraditional students to balance school, work and family obligations.

Claire Baglien, who returned to the University full time this fall after a year out of school, said it can be challenging to re-enroll, even after a short period of time.

“After a year off, you kind of doubt yourself,” she said.

Because many nontraditional students balance day jobs and night classes, Chapdelaine said, it can be difficult for them to attend professors’ office hours, which are mostly during the day.

When night classes aren’t offered for a required course, it can be challenging to get employer permission to take a class during the work day, Colosey said.

But despite the challenges, time in the workforce can give students real-life experience that enriches their academic lives.

Colosey said being able to respond to assignments with real-world examples helped in his coursework.

For Chapdelaine, working full-time made her studies feel like a refreshing break.

In class, Chapdelaine said she enjoys being able to contribute an experienced perspective to discussions.

“I’m 40,” she said. “I don’t have any black-and-white opinions anymore.”

Baglien said being immersed in life outside of college helped her understand what to expect after graduating.

“You have to really get what you want out of college,” she said.