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WAMC News

Part Two Of Student Loan Series Looks At Adult Learners

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In part two of a series on student loan debt, WAMC News takes a look at how adult learners are navigating today’s world of higher education and what schools are doing to meet their needs.When you think college student, you probably picture an 18-year-old fresh out of high school living on a university campus. But Ed Klonoski, president of Charter Oak State College in New Britain, Conn., says that population is actually non-traditional.

“If you think of full-time residential college students, your typical picture of a college student, I went to UConn, that was me, I was full-time residential,” Klonoski said. “They represent 15 percent of the 20 million people that are in higher education today. That’s all. Forty percent of the undergraduates in higher education are over the age of 25 and going to school part-time. So if you just look at who’s out there available to be educated, that traditional 18-year-old market is shrinking and the adult population is a big untapped possibility.”

Because of that stereotype, most of the conversation about college loan debt focuses on those teenagers and what financial barriers they may face when they graduate in their early 20s. As Klonoski explains, because of the increasing focus placed on a person’s area of study and its correlation to a career in today’s economy, more and more adults are going back to school.

“Twenty years ago if you got a bachelor’s degree in anything you had a credential that was going to open doors for you,” he said. “That’s still true, but now students are coming in saying ‘I want a bachelor’s degree in that field, whether it’s health or information technology, because that field seems to have a lot of job opportunities in it.”

But people entering college beyond their teenage and even 20s typically have more outside responsibilities like full-time jobs, insurance payments and families of their own. Karrie Trautman is the coordinator of financial aid and work study at Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield, Mass. where 66 percent of the 3,100 students attend part-time. She says those outside commitments mean many adult learners can only attend classes part-time, stretching a two-year program into three or five years.

“It’s generally longer than a traditional student because a lot of our non-traditional students come in and they have to get back up to speed to a college level,” Trautman said. “So a lot of our students start with remedial coursework in English or math or both. So they have to get back into the groove of education. So some of those may take a semester or two to just do the remedial class work before they even start their educational program.”

Three to five years can be daunting for someone already paying the bills that come with being on your own or supporting a family. That’s why Kristina Delbridge, the director of financial aid at SUNY Empire State College in New York, where 98 percent of 3,000 annual graduates study part-time, says getting the diploma is the best solution to student debt.

“The debt conversation has been a really hot media topic lately and it’s interesting because debt load from one person to another person can vary greatly and really the most important thing that everyone in higher education or government could do to actually address the perceived out of control levels of student debt is to help students actually complete their degrees,” Delbridge said. “Because the sooner the student can obtain their degrees and graduate the sooner they can start paying back on the student loans and earning an income. Realistically, the longer a student is in school, if they are taking an unsubsidized loan because the interest accrues while they’re in school, that’s going to play a difference later in the amount of money that they actually end up paying back on their loans unless they make arrangements to pay the interest while in school. So that’s one of the wisest things that students who are borrowing loans can do.”

Delbridge says the average loan debt for the 12,000 students who began seeking bachelor degrees in 2008 was $10,000. While it’s difficult for schools to track private loan borrowing, Delbridge says 60 percent of Empire State’s students — largely adults whose coursework is split between online and face-to-face instruction- received some form of financial aid either via federal or state programs, scholarships or employee benefits.

“The biggest misperception is that adult students somehow aren’t going to be eligible for financial aid and realistically they’re eligible for the same types of financial aid that a traditional student is eligible for,” said Delbridge.

Delbridge says it’s also a myth that there are no external scholarships available for adult learners. Charter Oak’s Klonoski says the external funding for college typically varies for a recent high school graduate and someone working full-time.

“Most of that kind of philanthropy is imaging an 18-year-old exiting high school and beginning college,” Klonoski said. “There are probably fewer scholarships of that sort available to an adult student, but adult students work and often times their companies will support their educational efforts with an educational benefit.”

Klonoski says adult students are also more likely to receive a private loan because they typically have more equity like a car or house than a teenager.

Sandra Barkevich is pursuing a master’s degree after earning two undergraduate degrees and receiving Empire State’s Chancellor’s Award for Student Excellence in 2014. But it was a long road to get to here.

Barkevich was living on her own after high school, attending community college and working as a night shift supervisor at a Burger King. She ended up dropping out because she couldn’t afford it, and like many say, “life got in the way.” After getting a customer service job she utilized her company’s tuition reimbursement to start at Empire in 1997. But when her company shifted operations to Buffalo, the reimbursement went with it and the pursuit of a college degree tagged along. Flash forward to 2010, seven years into a new job as a customer care advocate for Honeywell International, Barkevich realized she had gone as far as she could in her career without a degree. She enrolled at Empire, again using a company-based tuition reimbursement. Then in 2012, she was laid off. Her salary and company car went away.

“It was quite the shock,” Barkevich said. “I was the breadwinner so we lost more than half of our salaries. And it was brutal. Again faced with ‘What do I do?’ I felt that I needed my degree more than ever.”

The layoff allowed her to dive fully into her studies, but the loss of income still didn’t qualify her for federal student grants and she turned to federal loans, something she wanted to avoid.

“I know that so many people talk about how expensive college can be, but so many times people spend their money and they don’t realize what they’re spending it on,” she said. “You can cut back on minimal things and be able to get other things you just have to decide what means more to you. So for me, we used to go to the movies and eat out all the time. We decided let’s stop going to the movies and eating out all the time and then all of that money, which was a considerable amount of money, was then moved into the different bucket, in this case school. We gave up paid television. We don’t have cable or Dish Network or anything like that. That was a significant savings every single month. So little things like that. We tightened our belts and said, ‘OK I’m in it for the final stage.”

Barkevich is now working part-time in Empire’s office of academic affairs. She’s received scholarships by being involved in extracurriculars like one might expect a teenage residential college student would be a part of. She serves on the student affairs committee and is the editor of the student newsletter. When asked if she regrets not seeing college through to the end right out of high school, Barkevich says it’s a Catch 22.

“My son and my daughter will look at me and they’ll be like ‘Mama why didn’t you just go right into college when got out of high school? That’s just crazy,’” Barkevich said. “I say ‘I know, so what are you going to do?’ They’re both like ‘Going right into college Mama.’ So on one end I say going straight in, I wish I had and I wish I stuck with it. On the flip side I didn’t really know what I wanted to be when I grew up then and so if I had followed through I would be in a very different place than I am now and I might not have gotten the depth out of my college experience that I am getting now.”

Representing 91 percent of its student body, Charter Oak ranks third in nation for the most students over 25 according to U.S. News. Charter Oak’s Klonoski says the adult learner is much different than a high school senior taking a campus tour with her parents.

“Because adults are consumers,” Klonoski said. “They shop for programs and colleges. They expect the college to sort of meet them half way. They like online courses because it removes their need to commute places and it makes the education more convenient inside their own time constraints. So serving the adult market is difficult. They’re a demanding market.”

The Connecticut Legislature established Charter Oak 40 years ago as a degree completion institution. Klonoski says more and more students are coming to the school with fewer credits because people realize they need a degree sooner in today’s economy. Kelly Mollica is an outreach specialist at Empire State College, where 83 percent of its students are 25 or older. She says schools designed around serving adult learners are seeing more competition.

“The standard has shifted,” Mollica said. “There are more people I believe pursing degree programs now in a non-traditional format just because of the very nature of the economy and what is possible. The private college, Ivy League approach is just not affordable and/or flexible for today’s student. So the education industry is now having to reframe how we are approaching our students and how we’re providing that accessibility for them to be able to graduate.”

To better serve the growing adult learner crowd, colleges offer what are called prior learning assessments. This allows a student to prove, via tests, essays and projects, that earlier life experiences amount to college credits.

“Remember that at the end of the day, this is the part people get wrong, while college talks a great deal about instruction, what you get credit for is what you know and what you can do,” Klonoski said. “So in a typical class, you go to class, you do assignments, you talk to your students, you talk to  your professor, your professor gives you tests, papers and projects. The tests, papers and projects are a way to assess what you know and what you can do. The assumption is you need all the instruction and interaction in order to create the tests, papers and projects, but it isn’t actually necessary that you’ve had that instruction to demonstrate those skills. You might have learned those things somewhere else.”

Barkevich took advantage of Empire State’s prior learning assessments.

“I find it incredibly ironic that 63 of my undergraduate credits, which is just shy of an associate's, I got through prior learning assessment,” Barkevich said. “So almost an associate’s degree I could have had. Now that’s not to say that I would have done that earlier because the only way you can get this experience and something that involved, not everybody has that. You could be working for 20 years and not be that invested so you don’t get the college level leaning out of it.”

At Charter Oak, those prior learning assessments are molded into what’s called a student’s portfolio. Klonoski says 13 percent of the credits among Charter Oak’s last graduating class were from prior learning experiences.

“We’re currently part of an experimental sites program with the federal government where we’re trying to argue that if we could use PELL money for that we could increase that number,” Klonoski said. “Because currently at Charter Oak you can’t use your federal PELL for a portfolio, you can only use it for a course. Well a portfolio costs half as much as a course. So if students could use their financial aid for portfolio, or even for tests, which are even cheaper than portfolios, they could accelerate their time to degree and they could lower the cost of the degree. So that’s the proposition we want to see if the feds will let us test.”

Klonoski says the average enrollment at Charter Oak spans about three years with students carrying roughly $11,250 in debt upon graduation, not including private loans.

Also, Connecticut has begun offering a program where people with college credits but no degrees can enroll in one of the 17 state funded institutions and have their first and second courses matched with free courses along with their final one. Klonoski says there are already 925 students across the state taking advantage of the offer.

Another area of flexibility for adult learners is online courses, so students don’t have to worry about work or child care conflicts. But as Trautman, the financial aid director at Berkshire Community College, explains, the internet-based classes can come with a learning curve.

“It’s brand new,” Trautman said. “Also they may not have the technology at home to do it or they may not have the experience of working with the computer, using internet, typing and using Word and Excel. So we do see non-traditional students that are hesitant with doing online or they’re really uncomfortable being around a computer. We have students who did things on typewriters or word processors and they never had to use a computer in their day-to-day prior job or lifestyle. So they have to come in and be encouraged to take a computer class and learn the basics before they dive into online learning.”

Nearly 60 percent of people who leave Berkshire Community College will borrow money, owing an average of $8,500. In the end, is it worth it to go back to school while juggling a family, car payments and a job? According to Trautman, the answer is…it depends.

“They do ask us if it’s worth it,” Trautman said. “Ultimately we can show them statistics that you will make more having an associate’s or a bachelor’s degree traditionally than you would with a high school diploma. But certainly they have to take into consideration: are they going to have to relocate because once they have their degree does our current market allow them to find a position; or are they needing to leave here and go on for further education? So if they have their associate’s are they going to be able to find a position or is it just a stepping stone to get them into a bachelor’s or master’s program that they ultimately know in the field that they’re at.”

After achieving an associate’s degree from Berkshire Community College in 1988, Cindy Bird worked for 26 years at North Adams Regional Hospital in western Massachusetts before it closed in March 2014. With an 11-year-old, Bird decided to go to BCC in hopes of joining her oldest daughter at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and becoming a teacher.

“I never would have gone back to school because of the cost,” Bird said. “But watching this all happen, you definitely have to be an advocate for yourself for everything.”   

Click here for part one of WAMC News’ series on student loans.

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