WASHINGTON — When President Barack Obama talks about the cost of higher education, his mentions of “college students” might often evoke images of teenagers who spent their senior year of high school searching for the four-year institution that best matched their personalities.
That idea of a college student spending four luxurious, carefree years studying is passe. Of the more than 20 million students enrolled at thousands of two- and four-year colleges and universities across the nation, only about one-third fit that traditional description.
About 40 percent of all college students are older than 25, according to U.S. Education Department data. More than a third attend classes part-time. Nearly 20 percent work full-time. About 60 percent enroll at four-year public and private schools, while the rest mostly attend community colleges or enroll at for-profit colleges. Very few attend the well-known universities topping the U.S. News and World Report rankings.
As the number of traditional high school graduates shrinks, colleges increasingly have had to recruit from places other than high schools to keep their student numbers constant and ensure a steady stream of funding.
Many schools have ramped up overseas recruiting — the number of international students increased 35 percent between 2000 and 2012 — and reached out to the ever-growing number of Hispanic students and wooed transfer students who collect credits from a number of colleges. They also are going after “nontraditional” students, a pool that continues to widen.
To be considered nontraditional, students must have at least one of these characteristics: delayed attending college, attends school part time, works at least 35 hours a week, is financially independent, supports a family, is a single parent or did not earn a formal high school degree.
“Nontrads” often face many more challenges than traditional students, but when problems arise, it can be difficult or impossible to find help on campuses geared toward a younger crowd. Nontrads are at high risk for dropping out or taking far longer to graduate.
A handful of nontrads in the Washington metro region — including a Navy veteran, a 19-year-old living on her own and a single mom with four children — said they need a different kind of support and commitment from their schools. And not just the financial kind.
“I wish I had known more about the process” from the beginning, said Nathan Sable, 26, a Navy veteran who just transferred to George Washington University. “I just kind of blindly applied.”
A few years ago, GWU decided to become a top destination for veterans, who bring with them worldly experiences and thousands of federal dollars courtesy of the updated G.I. Bill. It did not work well at first, as veterans thought they had been reeled in with promises and were left stranded.
So GWU bulked up its veterans affairs office, taught faculty about military culture and hired a retired Navy vice admiral to look out for the school’s 1,000 student veterans, who now each get a personalized education plan that takes life experience into account. The goal is to build a community among the student veterans and their spouses and children.
Part of the problem of going back to school is finding the right school, said Sable, who dropped out of high school and joined the Navy in 2005 when he was 17. He was deployed four times, working as a search and rescue swimmer, fighting piracy off the coast of Somalia and responding to flooding in Pakistan, among other things.
Sable left the Navy in 2011 and came home determined to start college, but he missed the application cycle for that year. He traveled, worked on a fishing boat in Alaska and spent at least $500 on college application fees. After many rejections — “I don’t really have the resume for higher education,” he said — Sable ended up at Appalachian State University in his hometown of Boone, N.C.
He had to relearn things from high school in addition to absorbing the new material. He befriended professors and put all of his energy into getting nearly straight A’s. After a year, he decided to transfer to a school that offers an international curriculum and Arabic. He started at GWU last month.
“In some aspects, it seems like a big waste of time,” Sable said of his year at Appalachian State. “But if I didn’t do that, then I wouldn’t have gotten in here.”
Community colleges are more tailored to nontraditional students than four-year institutions. Still, when India Price, 34, talks about studying at Northern Virginia Community College, she keeps using the words “system” and “strategy.”
Price is a divorced mother with four children, ages 15, 11, 9 and 2. Her resume includes one year at Rutgers University, years in retail management, some dental hygienist courses and, now, business courses at NOVA. She prefers eight-week classes that allow her to have a laser focus on specific topics. She calculates how many points she needs to get an A in each class and avoids over-studying because she needs to drive her son to football practices and help with her kids’ homework.
Price works part time on campus, which covers her tuition. She hopes to finish her associate degree in the spring and then enroll at a University of Virginia satellite campus. She recently changed her major so that more of her classes will transfer.
“It has been a lot of strategic planning, a lot of hope, a lot of faith,” Price said. “I don’t like to call it beating the system. I call it being strategic.”
Age is only one indicator of nontraditional students. The other signs can be more difficult to spot. Take Tiffany Wilt, for example. The 19-year-old graduated from Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, Md., and is in her second year of Montgomery College’s honors program. She is a vegan with a funky haircut. She seems like the most traditional of traditional students.
But during her first semester, Wilt struggled in her classes. She finally confided in a professor that she bought all of her books online to save money but got several wrong editions. She couldn’t afford a new set.
Wilt has lived on her own and supported herself since she was 17. She is on Medicaid and her tuition is paid by a scholarship. Although Wilt says she is no longer dependent on her parents, the separation has not been documented, and she has been told she cannot apply for federal loans and aid until she turns 24.
Wilt babysits, and she works 35 hours a week at an organic grocery store, making $11 an hour and about $1,200 a month, which covers her $550 rent, $320 monthly car costs and other expenses. This is luxury, she says, compared with last year when she earned $7.50 an hour at a burger joint, couldn’t afford a car and had to pull an all-nighter at least once a week.
“My professors don’t know unless I have a reason I have to tell them,” Wilt said of her situation. “I don’t want them to treat me special or pity me. I put myself in this situation.”