Higher Education Part 3: Non-Traditional Problems

Hey, thinking of going back to school? Or are just a little late getting there in the first place? That’s ok. I’m the same! I took a few more gap years than I probable should have and have a good bit older than most of my classmates. Just, ah, lemme give you a quick word of warning: if you’ve got a life, this place really isn’t built for you.

Why not? Dunno, probably they’re just catering to the majority of their population, but the reality is that, unless you go a school or campus which specifically is designed for older students, the whole system is designed to fit exactly one type of lifestyle. Meet me below the fold and I’ll tell you about my experience.

First, a little about me. As exactly one of you (if you’re reading this, MC) already knows, I’m a few years beyond the usual 18-23 year old college student. No big deal, I’m not super old so I don’t stand out that much. However, I am also currently employed and live about an hour away from the main campus of my school. This is not a situation I can change easily, nor do I want to since I like my current living arrangement.

Now onto the problems I’ve encountered.

We’ll start with the big one: scheduling. This one is two-part, so bear with me.

First, actual class times. Morning classes and regular jobs do not go together well. I’m lucky in that my employer is able to work with me on as long as I’m not out every morning, but that’s still not great. A lot of returning students complain about exactly this, The main issue is that it forces them to take fewer classes not because they don’t have the time, but because their availability doesn’t match what’s being offered at the school.

I do understand that morning classes are more convenient for people who have afternoon and evening work, such as those who are fresh out of secondary school. However, even better afternoon offerings would help alleviate this problem for both older students and young people with unconventional schedules and life situations.

Why not take night classes or online, I hear you say? Great idea! That’s where the next part of the problem is.

There has definitely been a great shift toward providing more online and night classes at colleges around the country (United States), but there still aren’t as many as are needed. More specifically, they aren’t offered in the same semesters as their regularly timed counterparts. If I don’t have anywhere I need to be, I can get almost any class, Spring, Summer, or Autumn, but if my mornings are spoken for, I often only get one opportunity during any one calendar year. Again, not a huge problem for me since my job isn’t time-sensitive, but it still has forced me to slow down my degree.

Between long-term and short-term scheduling, I spend far more time than normal speaking to advisors and working out enrollment scenarios. This week, I’ve spoken with two other students, one of whom actually is “traditional”, with similar problems. In one case, it’s because money is a bit of a problem and she’s trying to do her program as quickly as possible, and in the other it’s for the same reasons as me: she doesn’t live near the main campus, but doesn’t want to be stuck in school forever so she goes to both simultaneously. It works, but it’s far more difficult than it should be given that all we’re trying to do is make ourselves more valuable.

I, and all of the other people I’m talking about, go to the same state-funded university. This is not some small college with too little money, or painfully limited staffing resources. They actually have a separate campus which caters to older students who don’t fit the conventional mold, but, even though that campus is small, it is underutilized. The staff at that campus are constantly trying to get more resources flowing their way because they know that there’s a lot of demand for it among their students. Do they get it? Sometimes, a little, but the main faculty still puts more emphasis on the younger students, even as over-25 enrollment reaches new highs.

Next problem: Workload. This is a really big one for most returning students. Since non-traditional students typically have jobs, and in many cases spouses and/or children as well, finding the time to properly complete the abundant homework that professors at youth-oriented universities like to hand out is very, very difficult. In fact it can be nearly impossible. For a lot of people, the only way to maintain a manageable out-of-class workload is to just reduce the number of classes per semester to one or two.

A classmate of mine is far enough behind in all her classes that she’s actually going to be forced to drop one. The refund period is entirely over. She’s a smart woman, and I have no doubt that she understands the material well, it’s just that having an actual life makes it tough for her to make time to do all the assignments for all her classes at once. So, of course, she’s lightening the load a bit.

I’ve talked about homework before and the same points still stand. Why is so much of it busywork which doesn’t help with learning the material? The whole point of going to school is to learn something to make and individual both wealthier and more valuable to society on the whole. Pointless assignments for the sake of assignments just make everything take longer and gives people a great opportunity to lower their grades. Good homework makes it easer to understand course concepts, rather than forcing rote learning of what to mark on the exams. This is already bad for young students whose first priority is school, it’s even worse when you consider older people who have so much else vying for what little time they have.

Getting a degree is a great investment and a good way to improve your career. In theory, it should also be useful for changing careers since that is what they always say right? Frictionally unemployed persons are expected to find new jobs either by re-applying their existing skill, or by gaining new skills which are valued in the current market. The educational system, however, is not conducive to this process.

Earning your first bachelor’s degree is easy enough, but if you need a new one later because demand for that type of work is down? Well good luck. Everything is structured around processing recent secondary school graduates through to their first jobs, not helping those who already have life skills retrain for the evolving market.

As for how to improve the situation, I’m really not sure. There are enough young students that catering to the returning ones becomes difficult. If you get the balance wrong, the kids will leave and other universities will pick them up instead. Even so, should the minority really be this badly serviced? Just a few surveys to determine where the overlap is could help. If the traditional student is willing to start their school day a little later, and the non-traditional student can take an afternoon class instead of evening, maybe a reasonable middle ground can be uncovered. There’ll always be gaps as its not feasible to meet everyone’s needs all the time, but certainly we can do just a little better than we are now.

Ok, so this one was a little different from the previous parts. These higher education posts are always opinion pieces, but this one leans a bit more heavily on my personal experience than I prefer, so if you feel I’m off base or just have better information than me, please leave a comment and say so! I’m always up for some conversation.

Thanks for reading! This is the third (first part here, second part here) in a series of rants I’m doing about higher education in the US. Throughout the series, I talk about the system of higher education, and opportunities I see for improvement.

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