Editor’s Note: This article is an expanded story based on John Englehart’s video submission to Voices of Today’s Students, a national campaign to educate policymakers about the demographic shift and experiences of the modern higher learning student, highlight their needs, and discuss policy barriers and solutions to increasing student success.
My story as a non-traditional college student began about four years ago. I had finished my associate’s degree, but thanks to getting married and having two beautiful kids, I decided to take what I thought would be a short break before pursuing my bachelor’s degree. That short break eventually snowballed into a 10-year hiatus from higher education. Flash forward many years later, I was sitting at my desk as a postal supervisor with the United States Postal Service, unhappy and disgruntled. That’s when I decided to return to get my degree at age 34—and I haven’t looked back.
But that’s not to say that my path has been easy. I enrolled at University of Maryland – University College (UMUC) to begin the journey to pursue my bachelor’s degree, a journey that has been a challenge. First and foremost, I wear many hats as a full-time Postal Service employee, a student, and most importantly a father, whose responsibilities involve everything from school pick-up to the all-important role of watching episodes of SpongeBob with my two young kids.
As a financial provider for a family of four, financing my college education represented a real sacrifice even with grants and loans that are available to students like me. I had to make some difficult choices about cutting back our family budget just to afford school. In fact, as a family, we couldn’t afford a vacation for about four years. My daughter would often see the Disney World commercials and wondered, “Daddy, when can we go?” I promised her when I graduated, we will find a way to take her to Disney World.
The experience of balancing parenting, work and education is increasingly the norm for more and more of today’ students. My story is not unique, but quite commonplace: 26% of today’s students are parents and almost half are financially-independent. In fact, there are even many stories of dual-generation students—middle-aged parents who are returning to college to complete their studies at the same time, or even alongside, their teenage and twenty-something children.
Many adult students like myself are struggling with the cost of tuition, balancing the demands of academics, parenthood, full-time work and commuting—all in pursuit of the promise that a college education will bring with it an open door to a dream job and a better life. Quite often, we feel forgotten because of media and political perceptions that depict college as something very different from the experiences we have. Higher education needs to be an experience that is approachable and well-suited toward students who wear three or more hats.
While there are universities like UMUC geared almost exclusively toward working adults, too often adults, part-time students, transfers, veterans and others receive limited focus and attention on campus. We didn’t go the traditional route of starting a four-year college degree right out of high school, joining fraternities and clubs, and having the campus social life of a “traditional” college student. That may be starting to change as policymakers and universities begin to see that adult students are an absolutely critical part of today’s workforce.
There are policy changes that can help students like me. For example, institutions that serve adults are also making a real effort to recognize skills gained from on-the-job experience and earlier academic work, so that adult learners can complete their degrees faster and focus on getting exposure to new skills and knowledge more quickly. To illustrate, a postal supervisor with ten years of experience already has experience with logistics, operations and human resources, and those experiences can and should count to an undergraduate business major. If we were to take this approach on a national scale and ensure more universities count prior learning, we could help millions of adults earn college degrees faster and at a lower cost.
These are just a few examples, but today’s students need real legislation and policy to come to life that can help students like myself afford a college journey and make the American dream a reality not just for students, but also the families we are raising.
Finally, I hope that my experience can be a powerful reminder that family commitments are not only a reality, but a source of motivation for today’s students. I remember one day, my final year of undergrad, I was getting frustrated writing a final paper. I closed my laptop and turned football on the TV. My daughter saw this and said, “No, Daddy. You get back to work and finish your paper so you can graduate because I’m going to…” “Disney!” “I’m going to Disney World.” Well, last December, I did it. I graduated with my bachelor’s degree, a 4.0 GPA and Summa cum Laude honors from UMUC. I realized that I was not only passionate about the experience of learning, but also mentoring and helping my classmates, so I’m currently pursuing my Master’s degree in Distance Education.
After taking on all these challenges, I am excited for what the future holds. But whatever comes next, my daughter will be going to Disney World.
John Englehart is a human resources specialist with the United States Postal Service, currently pursuing a master’s in distance education at University of Maryland Universtiy College.