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FOR THE FREE LANCE-STAR
James Powers started college 22 years ago. Then he stopped. There was marriage, children, his day job tracking satellites at Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren.
Finally, in 2006, at the age of 50, Powers decided it was time to finish what he'd begun. He wanted to do it for himself. He also knows how important a college education is in today's competitive job market.
Powers enrolled in Germanna Community College, where he could take classes on campus in the evenings or online at his home in Spotsylvania County. He still worked fulltime. His children weren't yet teenagers.
But in May 2009, Powers earned an associate degree in general studies. He was 53. He earned a bachelor's in liberal studies online from the University of Oklahoma in December. Now he's working on his master's.
Powers represents a growing number of non-traditional students--ages 25 and older--returning to college. This segment of students is growing quicker than the number of younger students seeking higher education, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. From 2000 to 2009, enrollment of non-traditional students jumped more than 25 percent. NCES anticipates that number to swell another 23 percent between 2010 and 2019. The growth of students younger than that is expected to rise only 9 percent during that time period.
The trend is perhaps no more apparent than at Germanna.
"Since 2008, we've seen a large influx of students who are adult learners," said Mark Haines, coordinator of Counseling Services at the college's Fredericksburg-area campus in Spotsylvania. "That's driven by a couple of different reasons: The economy, folks who lost their jobs or wanted a different career path. There are some who are still employed but their companies require it of them."
Students who return to school after years--or decades--outside the classroom face a unique set of challenges, Haines said.
"There's an initial shock," he said, and that's often due to technology. "Back in the '80s, when you did a research paper, you went to the card catalog. Now databases are all online. Classes are posting notes online. You're going to class with the notes."
There's the student information system--online, of course--and student email.
But those same technological advances that can be jarring for older adults allow many to return to class in the first place.
"In the 1980s, someone wrote your name on a chalkboard and gave you your schedule. Now you can make your schedule online. You can put your schedule together, find the online [class] schedule, hybrid classes, and make it work for you," Haines said. "There is flexibility that was never there before."
Martha O'Keefe, dean of Workforce and Professional Development at Germanna, has seen an uptick in the Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning program, the electrical apprenticeship program and in health care certifications, such as phlebotomy and medical assisting.
"These courses are offered in evenings and in a compressed format. Some are in a hybrid format," O'Keefe said.
Some adults return to college to hone their skills.
"The job market is such that it's always changing and always growing. Jobs are always evolving. It really helps to stay ahead of the curve. Everything is growing, from social media to new computer programs," O'Keefe said. "It allows folks to feel confident when they're going on job interviews. They can say they've kept up on computer skills. That will tell an employer the applicant is willing to learn and has recently gone through an educational experience. That's going to be a stronger applicant."
The anxiety that some non-traditional students feel is often "offset by a strong desire to succeed. They tend to be very motivated, committed and focused. They tend to be very specific in their goals," O'Keefe said.
Powers is now pursuing his master's degree in history online from American Public University. "My first goal was just to get my associate degree," he said. "I had such a good time doing that, so I went on and got my bachelor's degree."
"It was really tough sometimes," Powers said. One semester, he also coached his daughter's soccer team.
But Powers would like to earn the history degree so he can go back to Germanna and teach--and hopefully inspire other students the way his history instructor, Edwin Watson, inspired him, he said.
Kristin Davis is a freelance writer who lives in Fredericksburg.