For growing number of older students in college, prep courses essentialby Tim Post, Minnesota Public Radio
White Bear Lake, Minn. — A late-afternoon course at Century College in White Bear Lake is a class only in the loosest sense.
It's easy to stray from the curriculum here as students share stories from their first few months in school. In recent weeks, the class has helped students find their way around campus.
It's called First Year Experience, and it's an introduction to college life. It also covers study skills, and time and money management.
"You got family, you got a full-time job, you got to juggle all that along with your classes and homework," said Tom Nelson, a 41-year-old who started taking classes just a few months ago. "Not knowing if you can do it [worried me]."
Nelson said this class has helped him polish his rusty study skills. The college offers eight such courses a semester.
Two of the classes, this being one of them, are specifically designed for older students. Like Nelson, most of the students here are in their 40's and 50's.
The number of non-traditional students in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system has gone way up in recent years. Four years ago, the system had 80,000 students over the age of 25. Today that number is close to 100,000.
That's created a need for a special kind of class for these new students. They're popping up on MnSCU campuses across the state.
In the classroom, conversation often veers into topics only they understand. Like being older than the parents of the students they're paired up with for class projects.
"How many of you have said 'Really, I'm stuck with a 20-year old? I'm sure they're like 'Really? I'm stuck with the old guy? Who doesn't even know how to use a computer?'" said Jill Aitchison, the Adult Learner Advocate at Century College.
She helped develop this class about a year ago, in response to an increase in older students seeking degrees, many who were laid off in the faltering economy.
There are 25 percent more non-traditional students in the MnSCU system today than there were in 2006.
At Century College the rise has been more dramatic, almost 53 percent. Four out of 10 students at Century are now over the age of 25.
Even with the increase, Aitchison wasn't sure if older students would be interested in the free, not-for-credit course.
"I didn't know if they were too busy, if they were interested in the extracurricular thing," she said. "Pretty quickly I realized they were looking for some additional support."
For some students, like Kirsten Bornus, 52, from Shoreview, that additional support comes in the form of basic information, like help getting to know campus.
"To be able to find my way and know where I could get a hold of somebody who could give me a learning styles test or somebody who could tutor me in a class was important," Bornus said. "I might not have otherwise known."
For others this class has taken on the role of a support group. Nelson, the 41-year-old, wants to get out of manufacturing, and become a paramedic.
But starting college filled him with worry. It was his first time in a classroom since graduating from high school 23 years ago. It's also introduced him to several students facing similar challenges.
"Connecting with other adult learners here has been the biggest support," Nelson said. "I think I might have quit if I didn't have this class. Because it was really overwhelming in the beginning."
Aitchison said older students appreciate the support offered by the class.
She said there's pressure on all students to succeed, but for older students it's more intense.
"It's not a lackadaisical 'Woke up yesterday, what the heck, I'll go to college'. They've thought about this. And if it doesn't go well they don't really have a back up plan. This is their backup plan," Aitchison said.
Several colleges in the MnSCU system offer similar courses for non-traditional students.
Officials say they help older students find their place in those first few weeks of school, and find other students dealing with the same experience.
- Morning Edition, 03/28/2011, 7:45 a.m.