By Emmy Liederman
Tim Reagan is a 42-year-old from Princeton, New Jersey, a father of three children and an education student at the College. After struggling to make ends meet and living paycheck to paycheck as a farmer, he decided it was time to go back to school. Reagan is now pursuing his lifelong dream of becoming a teacher.
“I got my undergraduate degree 20 years ago from Rutgers, then worked on farms for a long time and had a family,” he said. “But working on farms doesn’t pay the bills. Now I’m starting a second career. I’m aiming for middle school math.”
Although the College has historically been focused on meeting the needs of traditional, 18 to 22-year-old undergraduate students, the number of mature students enrolling in higher education is on the rise. More adults are going back to school to strengthen their professional skills, reconsider their career paths and make more money.
Bobbie Schwartz, a 27-year-old English major, is set to graduate in 2021. Like many other non-traditional students, Schwartz tried to pursue higher education after receiving her high school diploma, but did not feel she was emotionally prepared. Schwartz was pressured to join the workforce by her parents, who do not value a college degree.
“My family didn’t care about education at all,” she said. “My mom is a bus driver and my dad works at the post office, which is the same job he had when he was 18. He got mad at me when I told him I was going back to college and refused to give me his tax information to do the FAFSA. It’s all, ‘You’re wasting your time. You’re wasting your money.’ It’s really hard to motivate yourself when you have no one motivating you.”
While fewer traditionally-aged students are pursuing their bachelor’s degrees, enrollment of non-traditional students is the fastest-growing demographic. According to the Center for Law and Social Policy, four in 10 undergraduate students are 25 years or older, and between 2012 and 2022, the non-traditional student enrollment rate will grow twice as fast as that of traditional students.
On a campus that prioritizes traditionally-aged students, 42-year-old Reagan joked that a club for the non-traditional students at the College could function like a nursing home, featuring hourly activities that typically appeal to the elderly.
“We could have knitting on Thursdays and listen to old time 80s music,” he said with a smile.
While some mature students are enrolled in weekly classes for credit towards their degree, others are pursuing a specific certification or are looking to strengthen a new skill set. George Hefelle, the External Program Specialist for the Office of Graduating and Advancing Education, coordinates night courses in topics like teacher development and literacy that cater to the needs of non-traditional students who maybe also be full-time employees. Hefelle shared that because the College has always been focused on traditional undergraduates, it is often difficult to find professors that are able to fit these night courses into their busy schedules.
“The most challenging part is getting the faculty to work with me,” he said. “With most faculty, I need to talk to them and work with them because [their] primary focus is undergraduate education. Doing continuing and professional education would be in addition to undergraduates. Sometimes, it's not a priority. I don’t mean that in a bad way — they’re just really focused on undergraduates.”
Schwartz explained that a common struggle for non-traditional students is sharing a classroom with peers who have just graduated high school.
“I was in high school in 2010, and I feel like I have to try harder to be on the same level.” she said. “I have more experience, but I have an intelligence gap. I feel like I have to study more and work harder on assignments. I’m taking Math 106 and doing geometry and have no idea what I’m doing.”
Nick Tusay, a 37-year-old graduate student, spent years teaching high school physics after graduating from Rutgers University in 2004. Tusay knew he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life as an educator and enrolled in the College to pursue his lifelong goal — a PhD in astrophysics.
“I feel like I’ve made a lot of connections with students,” he said. “Coming in with that teaching experience has helped me impart a little bit of learning wisdom.”
Outside of the classroom, Tusay spends his time tutoring high school students from the local community. Although he only works part time and has a short commute to campus, he acknowledged that flexible course offerings would make his college experience more convenient.
“There are limited physics classes and I have to take certain classes with only one section,” he said. “I don’t get an option for the most part. I only live like 10-15 minutes away, but it would be nice to commute one or two days a week instead of all five.”
While some non-traditional students spend minimal time on campus and aren’t focused on much more than getting their work done and graduating, others are more interested in forming connections within the community and getting involved in activities. This has proven to be difficult at a school that heavily caters to traditional students.
“A key factor in succeeding academically is having a social group,” said Reagan. “It’s difficult for me to do that. People are generally friendly, but they’re all busy. I find that I feel kind of isolated. There’s some striking aspects of coming back to school as a 41-year-old, middle-aged white man. There is definitely some isolation based on my age and gender.”
Eric Van Eck ’18, a 31-year-old former public health major, graduated in the fall after many years of struggling with substance use disorder. Before finding his home in the Lion’s House, a substance-free residence in Townhouse East, Van Eck felt uncomfortable and isolated on campus.
“Since I was older and also in recovery, I felt very different from most students here,” he said. “When I first came back, I felt very out of place. The majority of students are young and right out of high school. Fortunately, there was the Collegiate Recovery Program and a community which immediately connected me to other students that were like me and with activities that were substance-free so I could fill the time that I had here.”
Although Van Eck was lucky enough to find a social group through his recovery program, he acknowledged that his college experience would have suffered significantly if he lacked this support system.
“At the end of the day, it’s about finding your people,” Van Eck said. “If you have people that are in similar circumstances and you can share in each other’s misery, success or triumph, that keeps you connected. That sense of community for older students is very much needed.”